Smile for the media! Will Gulf-based airlines be forced to change their employment practices or will they risk possible reputational damage in the face of criticism from the foreign press? (image source: http://www.nycaviation.com)
First there was Qatar and now the UAE. I’m not talking GDPs, economic growth or any other metric that a government may promote in the public spotlight. Rather, I’m talking about media criticism, notably international media criticism of worker rights.
Over the past couple of weeks a series of articles have been written, mainly by the European media, critiquing the lack of rights for employees of Qatar Airways and Emirates. The pieces, in particular a lengthy series of allegations in Swedish newspaper Expressen, have shone a light on employment practices, many of which appear distasteful to those not used to working or living in the Gulf.
The article in Expressen entitled the Truth About the Luxury of Qatar Airways details the conditions under which Qatar Airways employees have to live. The report, which can be read here, tells of strict curfew times for air hostesses and pilots, constant surveillance, and instant terminations.
Others have run similar allegations. Even locally, we’re beginning to see these articles appear in the press; Arabian Business recently ran two pieces on the HR practices of both Qatar Airways and Emirates.
With a global presence comes greater media scrutiny. Similarly, global events on your doorstep can attract negative headlines (look no further than Brazil in the run up to this year’s World Cup or even Qatar, the 2022 World Cup andthe country’s labor camps).
In a sense, I’m surprised that this hasn’t happened sooner. The region’s three big airlines are global players who aim to capture transit traffic which they shuttle through their hubs in the Gulf. Similarly, the region’s sovereign wealth funds have been snapping up brands globally for some time now, but especially in Europe where trophy assets have become a staple for SWFs in Doha and Abu Dhabi.
So, how do the airlines react? Never one to be outdone for a quote, Qatar Airways’ CEO has furiously denied all of the allegations and has instead railed at the newspapers printing the articles and called them, in effect, racist. To quote from Arabian Business:
“Like any other organisation, we terminate nonperforming employees and these are allegations made by ex-QA staff.”
“This is not against Qatar Airways but against my home country. They are throwing stones at my country for no reason at all.”
Emirates has been more low-key in their response on the claim that they mistreat female employees by firing female cabin crew who become pregnant during the first three years of their employment.
In the long-term how should the airlines respond? If they continue to deny or ignore the allegations, will they face a backlash from consumers concerned about the airlines’ reputation? What’s certain is that the headlines are not going to go away; to the contrary, the deeper you dig, the more bodies you will find. It’s going to be fascinating to see if the negative media coverage from outside the region eventually forces a change in worker policies.
This is one theme I’m going to be following with increasing interest.