Is This a Luxury You Want to Buy?

The three Gulf mega-airlines, Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways, leverage billions of dollars in government subsidies to provide high-end indulgences to their passengers - but for too long the human cost of these luxuries has been hidden from the flying public. As a longtime airline professional, I have come to believe that a ticket on these carriers comes at too high a cost. These state-owned airlines have earned a reputation for luxury on the backs of their employees, especially flight attendants, who are subject to abusive and inappropriate employment policies.

The Gulf carriers' strategy for cabin crew is straightforward and cynical: hire young, attractive women from poor countries (90 percent of the workers at these airlines are migrants, far from home), 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 pretty young woman keen to live a better life, indeed the promise of a glamorous life, this model is infinitely sustainable. But do you want to support that model?
Two points to frame the discussion. To begin, trade unions are illegal in the UAE and Qatar.

Additionally, these countries do not respect even the most fundamental norms for worker due process. Recent articles in The Economist and The Guardian, and a report from the International Transport Workers Federation, have documented a long list of Gulf airline labor practices that would be unacceptable - if not illegal - in the United States, the EU, or other industrial nations. Qatar Airways has been most criticized, although in The Guardian story Qatar claimed that their "employment conditions are not dissimilar to other airlines in the Gulf."

Until recent pressure and bad publicity forced them to change, Qatar Airways' job contracts allowed them to fire employees for becoming pregnant, and expressly prohibited marriage without company permission. But a host of intrusive provisions and practices remain. Female employees cannot be dropped off or picked up from company property by anyone other than their father, brother, or spouse. Curfews are routine and enforced. Former flight attendants tell of dismissal for holding hands in public.

Some of their labor provisions seem close to indentured servitude. For example, at Qatar, if you are fired before completing two years of service, you have to pay a bond (which most cannot afford). Under Qatar's employment sponsorship protocol, called "kafala," employees cannot seek other employment within the country, but cannot leave Qatar without the airline's authorization. And if they can leave, they may have to find money for air fare home to Manila, Hyderabad, or Bangkok.

Careful monitoring of cabin crew - and other employees - is part of the plan. Video cameras are everywhere. According to the recent article in The Guardian, flight attendant Ahmed Khalil, "who had been commended for good service, says he ended up imprisoned without charge for two nights and deported after briefly sticking chewing gum over the CCTV lens in the accommodation building." So much for striking back. And there's old-fashioned monitoring too, worthy of East Germany's former Stasi apparatus; according to one comment on The Economist website, at a cabin-grew graduation ceremony Qatar CEO Ahmed Al Baker "proudly told us that he hired 60 spies to keep a watch on the employees and the number would go up to more then [sic] 100 in a year."

The Gulf carriers deflect criticism of these practices 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. 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: they're poor, they need a job - and one that is well set up to send remittances home for parents' housing, siblings' school fees, and the like - and the job clearly looks glamorous. The promise of travel has long attracted people to this business. Third, Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar point to all the awards they consistently win for excellent service. In June, Qatar won Skytrax Airline of the Year award, along with two other trophies. But the awards don't take into account the way employees are treated. And fourth, they claim the complainers are a tiny fraction of the total workforce; but given their draconian rules, their spying, and the threat of dismissal and repatriation, who is likely to complain?

I teach marketing in business schools worldwide, and I understand the fundamentals of consumer behavior and the power of free choice. But I also understand informed and ethical personal behavior, and I shudder at the prospect of patronizing firms like the Gulf airlines that treat people so poorly. To me, there's a simple test: would you want your child or young relative to work there?