Qatar Airways says the sky is the limit with its high-flying careers, but activists say that if the Middle Eastern carrier gets its way, some Atlantans may soon be moving to a country that keeps its workers grounded.
In July Qatar is set to begin its U.S. recruitment drive for flight attendants in Atlanta, the newest of 10 American destinations for the rapidly expanding airline.
They’re promised tax-free salaries, medical insurance, housing, uniform dry cleaning and other enticements including flights home during leave. With these essentials taken care of, the airline reasons, employees can focus on providing the stellar service that have earned it the title of the “world’s best airline.”
But some have asserted, despite patent denials from Qatar Airways, that Atlantans headed to Qatar could be prevented from marrying without the airline’s permission, forced to live under strict curfews or fired if they get pregnant.
The State of Qatar has been in the international spotlight for substandard conditions for workers who have come to brave the desert heat to build stadiums, roads, bridges and a new metro system in time for soccer’s 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Some broad estimates have claimed deaths of more than 1,200 workers so far, many of them South Asian immigrants from Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in the construction blitz.
But even those compiling the figures have conceded that they include all deaths from causes such as heart attacks and traffic accidents that may not be directly related to construction. The Qatari government acknowledged the first death on a World Cup site in April, an Indian man who died of a heart attack after falling ill.
Law firm DLA Piper in 2013 found evidence of construction-related deaths and urged the government to enhance its investigations of their causes. But a BBC report noted that the death rate for Indian men in Qatar, given the presence of about 500,000 of them there, on average is actually lower than in India itself for the 25-30 age group.
Still, Amnesty International and others have asserted that thousands of workers’ living conditions amount to modern-day slavery, as the “kafala” system of visa sponsorship by companies make exploitation easier. Unions are forbidden. Some workers have had their passports or paychecks withheld and have been denied passage back to their countries.
All that reputational baggage has followed the country’s namesake airline to Atlanta, despite its constant assertions that it hires on an equal-opportunity basis and treats workers well.
A group calling itself Alliance for Workers Against Repression Everywhere, or AWARE, has organized light protests across Atlanta, especially around the airline’s launch activities in May.
The organization has launched billboards near the airport on Interstate 75 calling for a boycott of Qatar due to its “anti-women, anti-worker” stance and has said in a press release that the state-owned airline’s global expansion is part of a campaign to gloss over rights abuses by purveying a friendly, upscale image in the global economy.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was picketed both on social media and at the launch event for supporting the airline but ultimately decided that he can’t pick sides if the city is to keep its doors open to global connectivity.
When announcing an end to its sponsorship of the Fox Theatre for renting out its facilities to Qatar, Delta Air Lines Inc. joined the fray, saying its rival’s business practices “harm U.S. aviation jobs and violate basic human rights.”
In Qatar’s view, that statement could belie the real force behind efforts to tarnish its image locally.
AWARE’s head, Mike Lux, has been linked to previous Delta lobbying efforts and has no history of human-rights activism, and his organization has not made its funding sources public, the airline said in a statement.
“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,” the statement reads.
The campaign also spreads outdated or false statements, the airline said.
On the charge of “asking permission for marriage” Qatar Airways has adjusted contract provisions as part of an effort last year to align contract language with reality.
“The vast majority of employees are here on work visas, and the marital status must be kept updated. 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,” a spokesperson told Global Atlanta in an email, declining to be named.
Married couples (and others) can opt out of company-provided housing, which contrary to AWARE’s assertions is not “monitored” any more than an apartment building.
“All of our accommodations have security guards akin to doormen. There is no monitoring. CCTV is in place at entrances and common areas for security purposes, not inside apartments,” the spokesperson said.
Pregnant “cabin crew are provided ground-based roles for the duration of their pregnancy” and are not fired for being pregnant, the airline side. Weight limits are not imposed on flight attendants.
“I will resign if even one case [of either] is proven to be true during my tenure of managing cabin crew,” said Rossen Dimitrov, a senior vice president who has been in charge of customer experience since 2013 and to whom cabin crew have been reporting since January 2015.
Curfews do remain in place, but the airline says that’s both for the safety of the crew for which the airline takes full responsibility under the kafala regime.
All in all, the airline’s executives believe the labor dispute is manufactured to detract from the competitive challenge they bring to U.S. airlines. In their view, the job market is telling the real story: Qatar says it receives 5,000 applications per day for cabin-crew positions alone. More than 160 nationalities are represented at the group level, with flight attendants hailing from 112 countries.
“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,” the airline said in the statement.
The head of the U.S.-Qatar Business Council has called into question the findings of international rights groups on Qatar’s labor practices.
While acknowledging that the kafala system helps create a chain of exploitation, former U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Patrick Theros said the country has departed from its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbors in addressing it head-on. Reforms have replaced the system with a contract system, though rights groups complain that it’s just a change in name.
Qatar Airways has five-year automatically renewable contracts. Many of its crew have a shorter tenure than U.S. airlines because the carrier is only 19 years old, the airline said.
“The assertion that Qatar has paid lip service to accusations and done nothing about them does not reflect what has actually transpired on the ground. I fear that sensationalist and exaggerated reports contribute little to the solution other than gaining notoriety for those who write them,” Mr. Theros wrote in an open letter on the council’s website.
He added that reports by Amnesty failed to look at the impact on unscrupulous recruitment practices and trafficking rings that start in the countries of origin, long before workers ever arrive in Qatar.
For Qatar Airways, what’s missed in the debate is its record of providing advancement opportunities for workers while connecting them to the global economy.
During an interview on the inaugural flight from Atlanta, Mr. Dimitrov said he’d just gotten an email from a former employee in the Philippines thanking the executive and the airline for developing his capabilities.
When he hears allegations of abuses of the flight crew, he said he just has to remind himself, “I know the truth behind this.”
“If anybody wants to come to Doha and speak to our crew, they’re welcome to,” he said. “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.”
Job information will be posted on Qatar Airways website. Currently, listings only cover cargo positions. The airline offers freighter services to Atlanta four times weekly.
The airline is set to release its fiscal 2016 financial results in the next few weeks, which could shed light on its relationship with the government and the key question of the financial viability of its expansion. U.S. airlines have previously called into question the accounting methods of the “Middle East Three” airlines — Qatar, Emirates and Etihad.
Editor’s note and disclosure: Global Atlanta was a guest of Qatar Airways on this flight and on a familiarization tour of Doha that stretched until Saturday, June 4.