As Qatar Airways begins its push to hire flight attendants in Atlanta, some are aiming to let the potential employees know what they’re in for — especially the women.
An advocacy group calling itself AWARE has taken out ads in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on a progression of billboards near the airport along Interstate 75 accusing the airline of suppressing women’s rights and serving as the marketing arm for a state that, at the very least, turns a blind eye to the exploitation of migrant workers.
Rights groups have used the occasion of the airline’s launch in Atlanta June 1 to press their case, which is backed by articles in influential outlets like The Guardian over the last few years alleging the airline’s tight control over the physical appearances of crew members and its propensity to fire them for the smallest of reasons.
That has left some in an employment limbo, given that Qatar’s kafala sponsorship system, common in Middle Eastern countries, ties immigration status to a particular employer, making it tough for fired workers to shift jobs. Some contractors who have accrued debt in the country have found themselves unable to leave or even jailed.
Since covering the flight launch, Global Atlanta has heard a variety of criticisms: That women aren’t allowed to get pregnant while working at Qatar (changed a few years back after International Labour Organisation criticisms), that they have to ask permission to get married (it’s just a request for a change of immigration status), and that some have complained that the minutest aspects of their lives are controlled in Doha. Some say female flight attendants can’t ride to work with men who are not in their family (true, but for a reason, the airline says), while pilots have different sets of rules (not true, according to Qatar).
Qatar Airways says its flight attendants are treated well, and that their new Crew City living accommodations are like “living in a luxury resort,” though the airline received unwelcome media attention after an executive sent an email to cabin crew picturing a female team member collapsed drunk after being dropped off in the entryway to their living quarters. He said he was “ashamed and disturbed” by her behavior in a country where drinking alcohol is illegal for locals and where the legitimacy of reforms to labor practices are partly dependent on employee behavior.
That executive was Rossen Dimitrov, senior vice president in charge of customer experience since 2013 (who gained responsibility for cabin crew in January 2015). Airport City asked Mr. Dimitrov to respond directly to concerns as it begins its hiring push here in the city. That conversation, held over a series of emails, is presented below:
Global Atlanta: We know the airline doesn’t want to talk a lot about labor issues, but this is a big concern in Atlanta, where you’re soon to begin hiring and where AWARE is taking out a lot of ads against you. You mentioned to me that AWARE’s information is outdated, but no one has clarified which pieces of their information are incorrect.
Rossen Dimitrov: We welcome the opportunity to set the record straight.
The allegations made by the organization that calls itself AWARE are patently false.
Qatar Airways respects the laws of every country it serves, and does not discriminate on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion or nationality. The airline recruits from all over the world and bases its hiring decisions on the ability of the candidate to provide world-class service.
Qatar Airways questions how a newly founded organization has managed to fund a multi-million dollar campaign that is apparently only targeting a single entity.
Qatar Airways is proud of its employees, and offers leading tax-free pay, housing, global medical coverage and other benefits that combined result in a highly desirable career opportunity. More than 112 nationalities are represented in its cabin crew staff alone, men and women who come to Qatar Airways for the career opportunity that may not be available elsewhere. As a measure of how competitive Qatar Airways roles are, the airline currently receives 5,000 applications every day for cabin crew positions alone.
Global Atlanta: Is it true that one can be ‘terminated ‘for getting pregnant, married or being overweight?
Mr. Dimitrov: None of this is true.
Cabin crew are provided ground-based roles for the duration of their pregnancy. We do have an official pregnancy and maternity policy in place. I will resign if even one case is proven to be true where a woman lost her job over pregnancy or for being “overweight” during my tenure of managing cabin crew.
Similarly, no one is fired for getting married. Many of our crew have been recruited already married or engaged to be married. We do require notification so the employee’s visa status remains current.
And finally, Qatar Airways does not have a weight requirement.
Global Atlanta: What happens to a pregnant employee if there are no ground positions available? I’ve heard some complaints that contracts have not been renewed in that situation.
Mr. Dimitrov: The network is of a size now where we can have confidence that a ground-based role is available. The employee also has the option of taking leave if she so chooses. This is part of our pregnancy and maternity policy.
Cabin crew employment contracts are auto-renewed every five years.
Global Atlanta: But is it true that women must follow strict grooming policies including weight limits, a throwback to an era when age and sex discrimination were the norm?
Mr. Dimitrov: Not true. While some airlines have weight limits, we do not.
Global Atlanta: Is it true that the company mandates that its employees live in company housing with strict curfews?
Mr. Dimitrov: Housing is provided. There are crew, married couples, for example, who opt out of company housing. We also provide company accommodation to couples (crew married to crew).
All crew cabin crew must abide by minimum rest to adhere to safety requirements and regulations. In addition, there are curfews for both men and women while in base – between 4am and 7 am (unless minimum rest rule applies). This is to ensure that they are safe and accounted for since they live in a company accommodation, are sponsored by the airline and we are accountable for them. These curfews are applied while crew are in base.
If cabin crew opt out of company accommodation, they receive a stipend to offset rent. This is a benefit not offered by U.S.-based airlines – one of many offered by Qatar Airways.
The airline’s new Crew City accommodations offers great apartments, pools, a spa, gym, sauna, grocery store, dry cleaners and other conveniences. It’s like living in a luxury resort.
Global Atlanta: What is “minimum rest” and how does yours compare to the rest of the industry?
Mr. Dimitrov: Minimum rest is time required for a crew member to rest before, after and in between flights. Actual time varies based on their schedule and other factors.
Global Atlanta: We have been hearing that female crew are only allowed to ride to work with male family members, not members of the opposite sex outside their families. What’s the policy on that?
Mr. Dimitrov: While in base, female crew drive to work themselves, or are driven by members of their family or by professional drivers (bus drivers, taxi drivers, shuttle drivers). This policy respects the conservative and traditional cultural norms here in Qatar, which focuses on family. While crew are in uniform, we have an obligation to uphold and respect the cultural norms of Qatar.
There have also been reports that the pilots’ living facilities are unmonitored and that they can have alcohol licenses, while flight attendants face a different set of rules. Some see this as a sexist double-standard.
Company-provided accommodations for pilots have the same security as all other company accommodations —and no one is monitored. All of our accommodations have security guards, akin to doormen. CCTV is in place at entrances and common areas for security purposes. No CCTV can be found inside apartments. Cabin crew policies are the same for men and women.
Is it the case that the airline bans workers from marrying without its permission?
This is not true. The vast majority of employees are here on work visas, and the marital status must be kept updated. In November 2014, we put changes to the language in our contracts on this issue out to review and updated it in May 2015. We changed this language to reflect actual practice — that we need to be informed in order to keep work visa status current. Crew are employed on a single status contract. If their status changes, they need to notify us. Many crew are recruited already married and some already are married with children.
Is there at all a policy of waiting five years after starting work before getting married?
What is your stance on the kafala system? Has there ever been an instance where Qatar Airways workers were subjected to delayed wages or confiscated passports?
Not to our knowledge, other than circumstances where the individual was arrested or detained by local law enforcement, but that would have nothing to do with Qatar Airways.
What is your average length of employee contract and renewal rate?
Cabin crew contract is 5 years, automatically renewable.
And what is your rate of retention and the average tenure of your staff? That would help show that people are staying around because they want to.
The average seniority is increasing as we grow. Remember, we are a 19-year-old airline that has grown double digits in the last several years, so most of our staff — not just cabin crew — have relatively low seniority compared to the legacy U.S. airlines.
How much does the airline contribute to the state budget, and is the airline explicitly tasked with being the “marketing arm” of the state? In other words, how do you feel about the airline being equated with what’s happening within the Qatari borders due to its legal framework?
We will release fiscal 2016 results in a few weeks. As for being an ambassador of the State of Qatar, “Pride in Qatar” is one of our corporate values. We take great pride in representing our country.
How does the airline recruit overseas, and while you have said that flight attendants live in nice housing, what are living conditions like for those working in professions below that level, the people who work in the airport lounges, cargo handling and other fields that make everything run? Is everything about their living conditions disclosed before they sign up?
Everything about employment for all roles is disclosed at the time of offer. All employees are provided accommodations that meet our safety and comfort standards.
Do you think this campaign has been orchestrated by your opponents? Why do you think AWARE has singled out your airline and not others? Turkish Airlines, for instance, is partly funded by a country that allegedly imprisons journalists…