Trade Unions

Loaned to a discriminatory employer

Simon Jones

Unite activist exposes a shocking abuse of workers’ rights by our national carrier

“Of course, it has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position”, asserted Akber al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways when asked about gender equality at his airline this June. Last year, the first year that Qatar Airways operated British Airways flights during some of the 85 days of industrial action taken by Mixed Fleet Unite, he described US airlines as “crap” with their passengers, “always being served by grandmothers”, while boasting that “the average age of my cabin crew is only 26”.

Though disturbing in itself, this sexism, ageism and misogyny is especially troublesome given that al Baker presides over an airline where Women’s and LGBT rights are woeful; where complaints against management can be met with instant dismissal and deportation with no right to appeal; where crew must be HIV and Hepatitis C negative, with blood testing as part of the recruitment process; where crew must live on a monitored compound with a nightly curfew, and their social media monitored. It was only after an investigation by the International Transport Workers federation and the ILO that women were no longer dismissed for being pregnant.

You might feel grateful that the above workplace practices are illegal in the UK and against the ILO’s fundamental conventions. However, you may be sadly disappointed and angry to learn that the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling MP, has granted a license for Qatar Airways to operate flights for our national airline between 9th June and 30th September. For four months this year, there will in effect be a workforce based in the UK and working out of Heathrow, who have none of our hard-fought workers’ rights. While in the UK, Qatar Airways workers will be operating flights taken from low paid British Airways workers who may themselves not be eligible to work for Qatar Airways due to their HIV or Hepatitis C status. The “exceptional reasons” for this “wet lease” are issues with the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines used on Boeing 787 aircraft.  While many airlines have found socially ethical solutions, this summer, the UK will see the most abhorrent case of social dumping thanks to corporate interests and profiteering bosses with their friends in the Tory Party smoothing the way. The fact that Qatar Airways owns 20% of IAG, British Airways’ holding company, along with the current gulf embargo against Qatar may have also eased some consciences along the way to this terrible outsourcing of human rights.

Pressure should be applied to British Airways to ensure it upholds and promotes the fundamental ILO conventions – specifically those covering freedom of association, the right to organise, collective bargaining and discrimination in employment. We should also demand that the airline drops its refusal of recognition to cabin crew based in Hong Kong unless they have 100% union membership, and gives a meaningful pay rise for the first time in 20 years to this small group of mostly female workers and stop being a force for driving down workers’ rights and pay across the globe. Perhaps one day we will have a national carrier that deserves to fly our flag.