Fair Trade Coffee -- How About Fair Trade Air Travel?

I was teaching last week at universities in Britain and Germany, and as always when in Europe I was struck by all the signs of fair trade products -- coffee, tea, clothing, and more. Socially-aware European consumers, and empathetic media and political leaders have long fostered a commitment to ethical sourcing -- simply put, to treating suppliers in poor countries, vulnerable societies and its workers fairly. This trend is less developed in the U.S., but it's clearly growing, not just in agricultural produce like coffee, but also in manufactured goods like clothing and electronics -- concerns about Apple's manufacturing practices are a good example.

But what about fair trade in services? Clearly, we should also care about how service employees are treated. It's important to shine a spotlight on some highly visible, badly treated airline employees: flight attendants who work for the three Gulf airlines: Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways. These airlines all pursue a high quality/low cost business model, and they can reconcile that economic contradiction by two means: massive subsidies from their government owners ($42 billion just since 2004), and sourcing almost all their labor from poor countries.

In conventional terms, all three of the Gulf airlines project a strong brand and position themselves as offering much higher quality in all classes of service, and true luxury in Business and First Class. Etihad, for example, dazzled the market with The Residence on its A380s: "With a living room, separate bedroom and ensuite shower room, it is the only three-room suite on a commercial airline, designed for two people travelling together." Actress Nicole Kidman features prominently in their ads. In similar fashion, in 2015 Emirates launched TV ads featuring Jennifer Aniston, who promoted their onboard showers. Qatar Airways' abrasive CEO repeatedly asserts that his carrier's superior service, not wheelbarrows of cash from his government, is why they are growing so quickly.

Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways' human resources strategy for cabin crew is simple: hire young, attractive people, mainly women, from poor countries, give them a short, fixed-term contract, treat them badly, dismiss them easily, and then hire more. Given that the Third World is full of people eager to live a better life (indeed the promise of a glamorous life) and in many cases to send money home to family, this model is infinitely sustainable.

A growing number of employees who have left these airlines, either after firing or voluntarily, are now speaking up -- from the safety of their native lands, of course. The blog DoNotFlyEmirates sheds light on how that airline treats employees. We all know that accounts in the blogosphere can be exaggerated, but even if you discount - say, by 50 percent - either the volume of posts or the seriousness of the allegations, you don't have a fair place to work. The accounts of sexual harassment are particularly sordid. In 2013, The Economist published dozens of comments, many from former employees, in response to an article on worker treatment at Qatar Airways.

Workers have almost no rights in these countries. Trade unions are illegal, and even basic due process and fairness is rare. Complaints against employers never become visible, and when they are made, people either quit or get fired. When that happens, they sometimes have to pay their own fare home, and may lose their contributions to the airline pension plan.

The Gulf carriers dismiss all this criticism with four arguments. First, they say, they are merely living up to their responsibility to care for thousands of young foreigners working in their nations, a "duty of care" argument. This rings hollow if you look more broadly at worker welfare in the UAE and Qatar, economies totally dependent on imported labor from poor countries, and places not known for humane treatment of these vulnerable workers - for example the recent news of mistreatment of construction workers in Qatar, or the accounts of horrific mistreatment of domestic workers and caregivers throughout the region.

Second, these airlines annually receive thousands of applications for flight attendant jobs. If it's so bad, they ask, why are people lining up for work? The answer, of course, is above: the applicants need a job -- and one that is well set up to send remittances home - and the job looks glamorous. The promise of travel has long attracted people to airlines. Third, the Gulf carriers cite the awards they consistently win for excellent service. Last year, Qatar won Skytrax Airline of the Year award, along with two other trophies. And fourth, they assert that the complainers are a tiny fraction of the total workforce; but given their draconian rules, their intrusive monitoring of employees (Qatar Airways' CEO admits to planting spies among cabin crew), and the threat of dismissal and repatriation, who is likely to complain?

The fair trade movement and concern about ethical sourcing asks consumers, all of us, to think more carefully about what we buy, and to ask hard questions about how producers behave. Air travelers who believe they are people of good will, people who embrace the Golden Rule, should ask the same question when booking a trip.