The International Labour Organisation has called on Qatar Airways to scrap contracts that allow it to sack cabin crew members for being pregnant.
The labour arm of the United Nations ruled it discriminated against women by including in employment contracts a clause stating: “The company reserves the right to automatically terminate your contract as a flying cabin crew member should you become pregnant.”
The ILO said the contract breached its 57-year-old convention against discrimination at work, which has been ratified by 172 countries. It also demanded the Doha-based airline review a ban on female cabin crew being dropped off or picked up from work by men other than their brother, father or husband, which Qatar Airways insisted was “a cultural norm”.
The case was brought against Qatar by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The ILO said that since the rights groups reported the allegations of discrimination at Qatar Airways in June 2014, the airline had made changes to contracts but these had not gone far enough.
An earlier contract said women must notify the airline as soon as they know they are pregnant and Qatar Airways would then be free to terminate the contract. Failure to admit to pregnancy or attempts to conceal it would be a breach of contract.
The current contract maintains the airline’s right to terminate pregnant women’s contracts, but says they can apply for a ground position if available, and the government said it is company policy for its managers to “diligently search for alternative jobs on the ground for pregnant cabin crew.”
Workers scared to speak out
The ITF and ITUC told the ILO that since September 2013, serving and former cabin crew have come forward to complain of discrimination by the airline. They said the right to fire pregnant workers has been used on many occasions and that many women felt compelled to resign to avoid the humiliation of dismissal and the right to repatriation assistance by the company.
They claimed that in practice there was a bar on marriage during the first three to five years of employment and after that it was at the discretion of the company with any refusal resulting in the employee having to resign in order to get married.
The complaints included allegations that mandatory 12-hour rest periods before flights included staff being confined to company premises, restricted from moving from assigned accommodation and a ban on overnight stays away from that accommodation, even when off duty. There were also reports of fire escapes and windows being sealed to prevent employees leaving.
Crew members said they were reluctant to submit complaints due to fear of retaliation, possible termination of their contracts and deportation from Qatar.
The Qatari government responded by claiming the allegations came from a small group of anonymous people and were based on the earlier contract which has been replaced by new terms, in force since December for all new staff. It said half of the existing crew had already transferred to the new contract and the other half would do so in the coming months.
It said since the new contract came in, no pregnant cabin crew members had left except for personal reasons and a few had taken jobs on the ground. It said there was now no contractual demand that workers request permission to marry. It still insisted that the prohibition on women being accompanied by men other than their father, brother or husband was compliant with a Qatari cultural norm. It said its policy on rest periods was of great importance and is applied in the same way to both men and women with respect to sanctions in the case of violation.
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