Airline Unions Blast Gulf Carriers

by Heather Cassell

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday April 12, 2015

Airline unions and flight attendants are making an unprecedented move toward equality in the air in the ongoing battle to level the playing field in Open Skies agreements.

The agreements, according to the State Department, have vastly expanded international passenger and cargo flights to and from the United States, promoting increased travel and trade, enhancing productivity, and spurring high-quality job opportunities and economic growth. Open Skies agreements do this by eliminating government interference in the commercial decisions of air carriers about routes, capacity, and pricing, freeing carriers to provide more affordable, convenient, and efficient air service for consumers.

But Open Skies agreements, which include more than 100 partner countries, don't include human and labor rights. In 1992, the first agreement went into effect with the Netherlands, Stephen Schembs, the government affairs director of the Association of Flight Attendants, told the Bay Area Reporter.

The airline unions are working on including human and labor rights in the agreement being negotiated with Norwegian Air International as a part of the European Union-United States Open Skies agreement, he said.

The fight is also focusing on Middle East airlines.

In late March, two flight attendant associations and two airline unions joined forces to push the U.S. Travel Association, the national travel trade organization, to pay attention to United Arab Emirates and Qatar airlines' lack of human and labor rights, particularly LGBT and women's rights.

U.S. Travel Association Chief Executive Officer and President Roger Dow is siding with the UAE airlines, according to a letter signed by four union representatives that was shared with the B.A.R.

Angered, the AFA's leadership is seriously considering an unprecedented move by approaching the U.S. State Department and Department of Transportation to request a consultation to include human and labor rights in future Open Skies agreements, said Schembs.

"We are asking the U.S. government to get the consultation because we think that the Middle East carriers are not holding to the terms of the Open Skies agreement," said Schembs, 50, a gay man who also sits on the executive board of Pride at Work as AFA's international union representative.

"I think that labor rights and human rights need to be part of these global arrangements that we are entering into with foreign countries now [and] in the future when we are looking at trading partners," said Schembs, a veteran in the airline industry for more than 25 years. "We need to be sure that we are including women's rights, labor rights and LGBT rights in the equation."

"We need to raise workers' rights around the globe," he added, believing that the U.S. is in the position to do that and part of that is by demanding labor standards with "our trading partners."

The labor leaders' latest target are Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways. The United Arab Emirates owns Emirates and Etihad Airways. Qatar Airways is a state-owned airline.

U.S. airline labor unions and flight attendants joined forces to criticize UAE airlines' discriminatory hiring practices against LGBT employees and alleged sexist employment policies.

Angered by Dow's defense of the Gulf airlines, heads of the Association of Flight Attendants, Association of Professional Flight Attendants, Communications Workers of America, and International Brotherhood of Teamsters called him out in an open letter to the association's board for "defending abhorrent labor standards."

The associations and unions are members of the travel industry trade organization.

Dow is defending companies that bar lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from employment and impose policies American and many other airlines around the world did away with a long time ago, the representatives wrote in the March 26 letter.

They cited that UAE airlines "imposed archaic weight and appearance standards," on its female employees and demand them to "get permission before getting married or pregnant." The letter also cited the Middle Eastern airline's anti-LGBT hiring practices along with the Gulf states' ban on unions and workers taking part in political organizations.

"I really feel like any type of discrimination needs to be highlighted, exposed, and magnified," said Laura Glading, a veteran flight attendant and president of the APFA, talking about the horror stories she's heard first-hand from Qatar flight attendants and American LGBT flight attendants flying to the Middle East. "These are people who do not treat other people like human beings."

However, Schembs believes there is a segment of the LGBT community that enjoys flying with Middle Eastern airlines because of the aura of a "bygone era."

"There is a large segment of the LGBT community who would actually say that they enjoy flying with the Middle East carriers because of the perceived luxury or the status that is associated with a bygone era," said Schembs, "but that illusion is only created because these airlines maintain these women height and weight status restrictions."

He wasn't sure if there were any LGBT-identified cabin crew members, but the airlines headquarters are centralized in countries with strong anti-gay laws. To work for these airlines is to go deep into the closet "setting us back decades in the work that we've had to do as cabin crew," he said.

Qatar can abolish any association that the "government deems a threat to public interest," the labor leaders wrote, claiming that the employees of the Gulf carriers don't have recourse or rights in dispute cases with their employers.

"Employees of these airlines aren't granted fundamental human rights that are enjoyed by most workers in today's world," the representatives wrote.

Glading agreed with Schembs that American travelers need to be informed about the Gulf airlines when they are spending their travel dollars.

"Let travelers know that when you get on those carriers and you make the choice to fly on a Qatar airplane that the people working on that airplane are treated horrifically and they are violating human rights," she said. "I think people have a right to know that."

Battle for the Air

The letter was the most recent skirmish at the Gulf airlines from U.S. airlines in a heated battle for fair competition in the air. The "Big Three" U.S. airlines - American, Delta, and United Airlines - argue that the Gulf carriers have received $42 billion in subsidies from their governments for a decade in violation of the Open Skies agreements, according to a recently published study.

Doug Yakel, public information officer at San Francisco International Airport, where the Gulf airlines operate locally, declined a request for an interview.

Representatives of Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways didn't respond to a request for comment by press time.

However, Etihad defended itself in a statement to the media but didn't directly address the union's criticisms.

Katie Connell, a representative of the Gulf airline, insisted that its workers were treated with "dignity and respect" and pointed out its high ratio 57-1 of applications. Connell also pointed out that 92 percent of the airline's employees stated in a survey that "they would go above and beyond their job responsibilities to help the airline succeed," reported NJ Advance Media.

"Our crew is entitled to the full scope of benefits in line with UAE laws, but we choose to go further," said Connell in the statement. "Etihad provides many benefits that exceed those requirements significantly, such as housing allowances, comprehensive medical insurance, education expenses, company-wide performance bonuses, robust HR practices, global flight benefits, emergency services, childcare services, and a generous leave policy."

Connell then pointed out the accolades the Etihad has received and shot back at the unions. She pointed out that the airline hired some furloughed United pilots at the rank of full captain, merit-based classifications that would never be permitted by a union. Connell also accused airline alliances of dominating the global industry and the alliances' desire to reduce the "competitive landscape" that Open Skies agreements encourage.

Dow didn't respond to a request for comment, but he continued to defend UAE airlines criticizing U.S. airlines concerns in a statement to the media.

"Casting about for ways to smear the Gulf carriers won't change the fact that Open Skies has been overwhelmingly beneficial for U.S. consumers, U.S. job creation, and the U.S. economy," he said in the statement. "If the 'Big Three' airlines and their unions are ever able to present compelling arguments for breaking the agreements with those priorities in mind, we're all ears."

However, Anthony DeMaio, a spokesman for APFA, disagreed.

"U.S. Travel and Roger are just on the wrong side of this issue," said DeMaio, referring to Dow. "It's a short-sighted position that they are taking. They think that if these carriers come in and put in a bunch of capacity and give consumers a cheaper choice it's good: It's good for travel and good for consumers. It doesn't matter if it's hurting American jobs and supplanting really with repressive regimes."

Malta Passes Progressive Gender Identity Bill

Transgender and intersex people celebrated as Malta's parliament on April 1 passed a progressive gender identity bill, even more far-reaching than Argentina's much-praised gender identity bill.

The Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act, 2015, gives transgender and intersex individuals in the southern European island country full rights to be recognized for the gender identity they simply "self-declare" before a notary and prohibits requests for medical records, according to an April 1 news release from Transgender Europe. The bill doesn't require psychological evaluation or sex reassignment surgery to be able to identify as the gender of a person's choice in a process that at maximum takes up to 30 days to complete upon declaration.

Furthermore, the bill gives parents and guardians of intersex children rights to speak on behalf of their children. Under the new law parents have the right not to agree to force sex assignment surgery at birth, not to choose a sex marker until a gender has been determined, and they can apply for declaration on behalf of their intersex and transgender minor children.

"The Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act sets a new benchmark for Europe," said Alecs Recher, an attorney who is the co-chair of Transgender Europe. "We are thrilled about the respectful, comprehensive and yet practical aspirations of this new Maltese act. It is firmly built on trans and intersex persons right to be recognized for who they are."

Transgender advocates in Europe called for other countries to take note of Malta's progressive stance for transgender and intersex individuals.

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