State-owned Qatar Airways is discriminating against its female employees, in breach of international labour laws, according to a ruling by a major UN body.
The airline’s policy of reserving the right to terminate the employment of pregnant women and it's banning of female employees from being allowed to be picked up or dropped off at the company premises by an unrelated male amounts to sexual discrimination, the International Labor Organization ruled on Tuesday.
The ILO also expressed concerns about the contractual obligation for employees to declare their marital status and the fact some are employed on a “single status” basis, despite removing a clause that required employees to obtain prior permission from the company to get married.
The complaints were brought to the ILO by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation in June last year and were investigated by a multi-national team including a member from the UAE.
Some of the issues had previously been raised in the media.
The airline has since introduced a new contract, addressing some of the concerns, although so far only half of the 9,000 cabin crew staff have been transferred to the new contract.
The ILO committee found the new contract still breached international sexual discrimination standards in some areas.
In particular, women are discriminated against when they become pregnant. The contract states: “The employee shall confirm and understand that as per the Qatar Civil Aviation Regulations, Cabin Crew are considered unfit to fly during pregnancy. Accordingly, the company reserves the right to automatically terminate your contract as a flying Cabin Crew Member should you become pregnant.… Should another suitable ground position with Qatar Airways be available during this period you may apply and undergo the recruitment process for the position if found suitable.”
The ILO in its ruling said while it is cognizant of the health and safety reasons for not allowing a cabin crew member to fly while pregnant, Qatar Airways’ breached international law by not protecting the woman’s employment or her right to maternity leave without discrimination.
“The Committee observes that the provisions relating to ‘another suitable ground position’ in the employment contract and in respect of which the cabin crew ‘may apply and undergo the recruitment process’, cannot be considered to be special measures of protection or assistance,” the ILO ruling says.
In its response to the allegations, the Qatari government defended its prohibition on women employees being dropped off or picked up from the company premises by a man other than their father, brother or husband, as being a cultural norm in Qatar.
However, the ILO ruled the restriction amounted to discrimination because it only applies to women.
The trade unions also raised concern over Qatar Airways’ rules stipulating employees must “rest” 12 hours prior to a shift, which is enforced by confining them to the company accommodation, and refusing to allow them to stay overnight at non-company accommodation, including on their days off.
The unions said staff had complained that fire escapes and windows had been sealed off to prevent employees from leaving the premises undetected.
They alleged that “broad surveillance of staff, including reports of control of social media and private activities while off duty, acts of verbal harassment and disciplinary measures, including dismissals, which according to the complainants, disproportionately affect women and go beyond national and cultural sensitivities and differences”.
It was suggested the strict rules were devised and motivated by Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker’s attitude towards women and that minor breaches of the rules were the lead cause for dismissals.
The government responded that the rest requirements were to “guarantee that cabin crew get sufficient rest to be capable of performing their duties” and refuted the allegations of degrading treatment, harassment or surveillance of women cabin crew members.
“The Government adds that, like in most other companies and public buildings, the only cameras that are operational are the security cameras at the entrance of the staff accommodation buildings,” the ILO ruling says.
The ILO found there was insufficient information to determine that the measures were discriminatory but said it “wishes to draw the attention of the Government to the need, when designing the rules governing rest periods, to ensure that they are free from gender bias” and requested information on the number of violations and sanctions, disaggregated by sex.
While the ILO did not find Qatar Airways guilty of harassment or demeaning treatment of cabin crew staff, it raised concerns that it was difficult for alleged victims to raise concerns because their only avenue of recourse was criminal proceedings.
“… when harassment is only addressed through criminal proceedings, it may be very difficult for alleged victims to meet the higher burden of proof, especially when there is no witness, and to access criminal courts, in particular in the case of migrant workers,” the ruling says.
“Moreover, penal provisions may also not cover the whole range of behaviours constituting sex-based harassment, including sexual harassment.
“While taking due note of the Government’s statement that such behaviour is not a characteristic of the working environment of Qatar Airways, the Committee considers that particular attention should be given by the Government to encourage the company to provide its employees, including foreign employees, with appropriate complaint mechanisms to ensure that they can obtain redress without being exposed to stigmatization or reprisals, and without the fear of being deported from the country…”
The ILO also called for female labour inspectors to be appointed to monitor discrimination and equality in the company.
The Government contended that the allegations were based on comments made by a small group of anonymous people and an “unreliable” article published in a newspaper, despite there being 9,000 cabin crew employees, 80 percent of whom are female.
It also said it had introduced several new measures to protect migrant workers’ rights and improved the recording and monitoring of labour inspections across all industries.
Qatar Airways has not responded to Arabian Business’ request for comment.
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