Economy

Airline Agrees To Stop Firing Flight Attendants For Getting Married, But Only After UN Investigation

CREDIT: AP Photo/Fred Lancelot

A Qatar Airways flight attendant

Flight attendants who work for Qatar Airways will no longer risk losing their jobs if they decide to get married or pregnant.

The International Labour Organisation, the labor agency at the United Nations, concluded a yearlong investigation in June, finding that the airline’s policies required workers to notify the company when they became pregnant and were often fired once they did. It also found that a previous employment contract had required employees to get prior permission from the company to get married, which trade unions had alleged also required employees to resign if they were denied permission, although that language wasn’t in later contracts that instead referenced “single status.”

Following that report, the airline made some changes. Over the last six months, it says it has phased those policies out. Crew are no longer at risk of losing their jobs if they get married within their first five years and can now get married anytime after they notify the company. Pregnant employees are also now offered temporary ground jobs instead of being dismissed.

Rossen Dimitrov, a senior vice president who oversees the flight attendants, said the policy changes were made in order to retain its crew. It will need to add at least 6,000 new flight attendants over the next two years. “You can’t turn to someone who is 35 years old and say ‘No, you can’t have a family, wait.’ We want to retain people,” he said.

Qatar Airways’s policies on marriage and pregnancy hearken back to policies that used to be widespread here in the United States. In the 1960s, stewardesses were forced to quit when they got married, and supervisors kept tabs by reading wedding announcements in newspapers. Advertising at the time portrayed stewardesses as potential future wives for customers.

Stewardesses of the time also had to comply with rules about their appearances, height, and weight, all of which was closely monitored. Advertisements sold beautiful stewardesses as part of the appeal of picking a particular airline. Some of that remains today: flight attendants for Asiana Airlines have to comply with rules about their makeup, hairstyles, and nail length. Others only allow attendants to wear dresses and skirts and don’t have a pants option for female workers.

Some of the old rules changed in the United States after court battles. The first people to bring discrimination complaints to the brand new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965 were stewardesses complaining about marriage and appearance policies. The policies continued until 1973, when a federal court in Washington, D.C. ruled against a policy at Northwest Airlines and the rest were soon struck down.

Even so, many American employees face restrictions on pregnancy in the work place. Complaints of pregnancy discrimination, included women who allege they were fired simply for being pregnant, have risen faster over the last 15 years than the pace of women entering the workforce. Other women have sued employers over being forced to comply with restrictions on their appearance and weight.

The previous complaints against Qatar Airways’s policies also included an allegation that a rule prohibiting female employees from being dropped off or picked up from work by a man other than a husband, father, or brother is discriminatory. In its report, the ILO said the rule amounts to gender discrimination and should be reviewed. Dimitrov responded that it “reflects a cultural norm in Qatar” but that “we expect to be looking at this with the government.