DOHA, QATAR. Qatar Airways is regarded as one of the most luxurious airlines in the world, and has received numerous awards for their onboard service. Flight attendants Saga and Gina testify about the other side of the glamour. How employees are forced to sign contracts that prevent them from governing their own life choices. Swedish newspaper Expressen’s reporter Johanna Karlsson commutes between Doha and small Swedish towns in her depiction of a five-star airline.
Gina knows she is not allowed to speak to the guard. Not while he’s been stationed at his post for twelve hours and is starting to get sleepy. Not while he’s longing for his Nepalese family and she is just coming off a flight to Kathmandu. Not while he mentioned that he earns 500 riyal (SEK 1,200 ) a month.
The cubicle where the guard sits, at the entrance to Qatar Airways’ staff housing, is strictly guarded. There are cameras everywhere. At least that’s what the management says – that they should expect everything that happens at the entrance to be reported to the managers, to be registered and be incorporated into each flight attendant’s personal track record.
Any action on Gina’s part can be construed as an attempt at bribery. After all, the guard is there to monitor her. To ensure that Gina never sleeps anywhere but the staff housing. Never gets home later than mandated by the company. Never allows an unregistered guest into her room, never leaves during her leisure times or has anyone sleep over.
At the same time, he is below her in rank – at least Gina can apply to leave the country if she wants to visit her Swedish family. The guards change buildings every third month, to really make any friendly relations impossible between them and the flight attendants. But Gina has noticed that this guard is sick. And that he is getting worse. She defies the rules and starts talking to him every day. Convinces the guard to go to the doctor.
“What did the doctor say?” she asks the following morning.
“I have diabetes,” replies the guard at the staff entrance.
Gina is silent. She tries to solve the equation of insulin injections and the salary of a Nepalese migrant worker in Doha.
“He says I shouldn’t eat rice,” continues the guard.
“But youíre poor! All you eat is rice. What are you going to eat now?”
“I don’t know.”
Gina and the guard don’t talk again. He’ll soon be relocated to a new building anyway. But before he changes his posting, Gina figures out that there is a tiny blind spot in the entrance where the cameras don’t reach. One morning, on her way to a flight, she ducks into this corner.
On the ground, she leaves a blood sugar meter and a Qatari five hundred note. 500 riyal.
When Saga drives down from northern Sweden for the tryouts at the Sheraton Hotel in Stockholm, she has just come off a night shift. It is March 2010.
Has always dreamed of being a flight attendant
She changes her outfit in the public toilets at Stockholm Central Station. Saga from northern Sweden has always dreamed of being a flight attendant. The tryouts for the five-star and highly esteemed Qatar Airways are held via open recruitment days. The candidate’s personality and looks are judged here – in detail. The candidate’s body should not have any scarring or tattoos, not even very discreet ones.
The airline holds recruitment events every weekend. There are often about six recruitment days a week globally. At the tryouts, information is shared about what the employees are signing up for. A pledge to stay single for five years, that permission from CEO Akbar Al Baker is required to marry as a flight attendant, and if you become pregnant, you must inform the company immediately. Also, Qatar Airways reserves the right to fire an employee without having to give a reason.
The same principle applies at the tryouts. They explain early on that no candidate has the right to question why they have not been selected.
Attendance is enormous in some countries, whereas it is only moderate in cities like Stockholm.
The girls are screened in bunches at the Sheraton this Saturday. Things move fast. Finally, only Saga and three other girls remain. They are called back for a personal interview the following morning. Saga arrives at the hotel thirty minutes early. But the recruiters are angry.
“We said 11.30, not 12.30. This is a very poor start!”
Saga tries to explain that she really didn’t get the time wrong, there must have been a mistake. But eventually she gives up and apologizes to the recruiters. They nod grimly. Qatar Airways has forced her to correct herself for the first time.
When the next girl shows up for a planned interview at 12.30, it is clear that Saga was in fact punctual. This is waved aside. The most important thing was that Saga took the blame. I am very sorry.
She gets the job as a flight attendant and is instructed to pack for immediate departure to her new living quarters in Qatar. Saga packs. And resigns from her old job. Shares the news with her friends and acquaintances in her hometown. But all of a sudden, Qatar Airways stops responding to questions. There is no information about what has happened. She is left waiting.
As June arrives, she gives up and begins to plan for a Midsummer trip. Four months have now passed since the promise of immediate departure and Saga’s packed bag at home. The standard policy applies: Qatar Airways is not required to explain itself to the employees.
Suddenly the tickets and visa arrive. Midsummer is cancelled. Saga is put on a flight to Doha.
Javier had never considered working abroad. As a pilot, he has excellent opportunities in his European home country. But a certain little European crisis got in the way of everything.
When he relocates to Qatar, he immediately understands that the pilots’ relationship with their colleagues the flight attendants is a very sensitive matter. He feels that the company CEO Akbar Al Baker focuses too much time on them and that the regulations governing the flight attendants’ lives are extreme.
“I am allowed to visit their staff building before 10 pm and if I register my name and passport number with the guard. But they keep and review the visitor register. It looks bad if I’m there too often,” he explains via Skype.
Javier reacts to the way Akbar Al Baker addresses the flight attendants directly. He holds aggressive inaugural speeches to groups of new workers where they are encouraged to steer clear of their male colleagues.
The pilots are my chauffeurs, they only come to you to fuck you,” Javier once heard CEO Akbar Al Baker declare during a welcome speech.
The rules differ substantially between the various professions. The entire country of Qatar adheres to a sponsorship system where the employer dictates the right of the employees to enter and exit the country, housing and they have a certain level of control of the employee’s bank account. As a pilot, Javier can pay to apply for a monthly exit visa and thereby leave Doha on his days off without needing permission from his manager.
Flight attendants, on the other hand, must request an exit visa for every trip. The chance to leave Qatar is used as leverage in a game of punishment, where six months of rejected exit visas is common punishment for a flight attendant who has done something wrong and issued a warning.
Javier, who wants to keep his job until employment opportunities in Europe improve, decides to stay away from the confined flight attendants with whom he shares a workplace. They ride the same staff buses, sleep in the same airport hotels and share the same cabin – but visiting them at home is too risky.
Gina boils some eggs. She has only just arrived home from a flight. She is tired and removes her makeup slowly. The saucepan overheats when the water evaporates and suddenly the fire alarm goes off. Gina switches it off quickly and tells the security guards that it was a false alarm. Too late.
Three different managers from Qatar Airways arrive at the guarded staff building. Question her in detail about what happened and ask her to prove her story.
“You were boiling an egg? Show us the egg.”
Gina rummages through the garbage and finds the egg. The managers arenít satisfied. They decide that she should be removed from flights for the next few days and she is summoned to the office the following morning. As there is a twelve hour resting rule before any work event, whether it is a meeting or a long haul flight, Gina is grounded until the time of the meeting.
At the office at Qatar Airways Tower, she is once more asked to give an account of the event. The fact that she was boiling an egg, how could she be so careless, how can they be certain that she will never do anything like that again? Gina is given a severe warning.
Then she is given a pen and paper. Qatar Airways now wants Gina to explain the egg incident in writing and to conclude by saying how sorry she is and that it will not happen again. They dictate and she writes. “I am very sorry, it will never happen again.”
This is the first time that Gina from Sweden is given a warning in Doha, Qatar.
Saga doesn’t get any warnings. Her behaviour is exemplary. She is promoted to first class faster than anyone else in her group. Receives letter of compliment upon letter of compliment. Is selected to accompany CEO Akbar Al Bakar on PR trips to market the company at trade fairs.
“Are you on a diet?”
Later this makes her somewhat nervous, as Al Baker has been known to summon selected girls up to his hotel room and shower them with gifts, such as an iPad. From more distant rumours, Saga has heard of girls being fired for not replying to Al Bakar’s private text messages to their mobile phones. Nothing like that happens on Saga’s PR trip to Oslo Instead, the group eats dinner in silence. The cabin crew and Al Baker.
During dessert, one of the girls declines. She doesn’t fancy a dessert. “Are you on a diet?” asks Akbar Al Baker roughly – and the mood becomes unsettled. Perhaps declining a dessert somehow reflects poorly on the company? The girl quickly changes her mind. She orders a dessert.
One day in Doha, a friend drives Saga home after a night out at a nightclub. The curfew for days off is 3.30 am. The friend’s car gets stuck in traffic. The clock is nearing the half past mark.
Saga’s heart is pounding. All the wonderful compliments she has earned, have they all been in vain? Is everything over now? A few blocks from the house, her friend says, “Listen, if I drop you off now, they will fire you immediately. Better to sleep elsewhere and try to sneak past in the morning and hope that the guard doesn’t see what you did.”
The plan works! Saga develops more and more methods. Sleeping away, but picking up the washing on the way back to make it look as though she just got back from a short errand. Sleeping away, but taking a work outfit with her so that the guard will think she’s returning from a flight.
The flight attendants devise new ways to live in a work dictatorship. They become experts at avoiding the employer’s cameras.
A new airport is being built at Doha. A 20 ton sculpture of a teddy bear, created by Swiss artist Urs Fischer, is already in place and waiting.
A large, new terminal building was opened only three years ago at the old airport, but it is already time to build a new one. The airport is owned by Akbar Al Baker. The airport is owned by Akbar Al Baker. With his airport, he is pushing his vision of Doha as a great hub for international air traffic. He pushed his vision of Qatar Airways just as forcefully, where all annual reports are classified and board members are anonymous, but the brand name is well known, just the way Al Bakar wants it.
Gina meets Akbar Al Bakar on a couple of occasions. He can storm into a lecture room for new flight attendants, and without another word come in and control the situation. He takes flights just to measure staff service capabilities. And he shows up at briefings in which Qatar Airways flight attendants stand with their fingers at chest height so that nails, complexion and hair can all be inspected.
When he shows up at Gina’s briefing, she greets him directly. He does not reply.
“You need to lose weight,” says Al Baker instead. And he leaves.
Every day, the flight attendants log onto the intranet, where the schedules are kept. One day, when Saga logs on, all her flights have been deleted. No one has warned her. Her schedule is empty. Everyone knows what that means.
She quickly goes to an ATM. Here, she withdraws 10,000 riyal. She has been working for two years. No complaints have been filed against her. On the contrary, she has been promoted and been given special assignments. But she knows that if she doesn’t withdraw her entire salary right now, Qatar Airways can freeze her local bank account. She has been detected.
Three nights in custody
Javier’s best friend among the pilots is in a good mood. During his flights, he has made the acquaintance of a flight attendant who he is getting to know more and more. The others warn him, but one night it happens anyway. She sleeps over.
The reaction is immediate.
The girl spends three nights in Qatari custody. Javier’s friend is stripped of his flights. The flight attendant is shipped back to her home country with the status “deported”, which means she can be denied any new entry into Qatar. The pilot’s milder punishment is a final warning. Any sidestep from him within the next six months and he will have to leave Qatar Airways.
The deported flight attendant’s former pilot friend loses touch with her. Qatar’s rules are such, when it comes to relationships between colleagues.
Soon after the incident, Javier resigns. Today he works for a different airline.
Gina and I meet at one of Doha’s restaurants, run by Philippine staff. Southeast Asian guest workers cook our food, drive us there in cars, stand in a corner of the restaurant and sing for us as entertainment while we eat.
During my stay in Doha, Amnesty is on location. They have requested a crisis meeting about working conditions in Qatar. But Qatari media cheerfully report the meeting with positive headings like “Amnesty Says Qatar Working on Working Rights.”
Every conversation about the flight attendants’ lives in Doha strays onto the much more visible group that assists them and all the other workplaces in the country. How Southeast Asian slaves are made to guard flight attendants who are confined in luxury with a passable salary creates a complex balance of power. Can a slavery system include a middle class?
“We often have coffins onboard our Kathmandu flights,” says Gina.
Nepalese men simply work themselves to death. Gina tells us that the coffins are loaded and unloaded at the same time as the passengers. Qatar Airways has around four daily flights between Doha and Kathmandu.
“But what is most painful is seeing how see how expectant they are on the flight there. On the way to Qatar. That they don’t know.”
It is November 2013. Gina is one of the few Swedes still working for the company. It has taken several months to get someone like her to agree to meet me. Over the three years that I’ve being following Qatar Airways, I have met Swedish girls my own age who are terrified to talk about their work, even anonymously. Swedish girls who have grown up with freedom of the press, employment laws and freedom of speech but who wouldn’t even dare reply to an email from a journalist to say “no, thank you”.
Stewardesses and pilots working for Qatar Airways have all signed a detailed Non Disclosure Agreement about not discussing the company, sharing their views on Facebook or showing pictures of their uniforms. “Getting fired is easy,” says Gina who claims that luck is the reason she still has her job.
“There was a period about eight months ago when four staff housing buildings were more or less emptied. Every time you were hanging out with another stewardess, mobile phones kept ringing: she’s off, now she’s off. I was talking to a friend one day when six of the girls in her building had been fired in the same week.”
The company’s sudden redundancies are as constant as the international recruitment days every weekend. Stewardesses are fired for wanting to change room mate, for posting an inappropriate Facebook status, for getting a tattoo that colleagues then sneak a photo of and show the company as proof, for returning to the housing five minutes after curfew, for letting a man that they know who is neither their husband or father give them a lift to work, for smoking a cigarette during their time off.
The man the stewardesses are called to see when it is time to be fired is Saliya Karunanayake. He now takes out two printed images in A4 format and silently puts them on his desk in front of Saga. They are photographs from the surveillance camera. The first image shows Saga leaving the house, the second her return.
“You are not wearing the same clothes in the two images. You have slept somewhere else,” Saliya Karunanayake points out in a sharp tone.
Saga has tried to prepare herself ever since she saw the empty schedule on the intranet. There are various theories about how a stewardess can avoid immediate termination. Someone advises her to weep, another to be strong and act dignified. Now she doesn’t know which method is best. She admits to what the camera captured.
“It got late, I didn’t want to come home after curfew and get fired for it, so I stayed with a female friend.
Saliya Karunanayake asks for a more detailed description of the night in question. First verbally. Then in writing. Saga is asked to leave the name, phone number, place of work and job title of the female friend in question. This terrifies Saga. She gets it into her head that the girl she names could get in trouble and tries to say that she doesn’t remember her number.
So infected are Sagas thought patterns that she worries on behalf of a normal woman outside of Qatar Airways who has had a friend over to stay. The meeting is not at all what you would expect during a discussion between an employer and employee. When she apologises, it is for something bigger than breaking a rule during a night off.
A few days after I leave Doha, Gina gets in touch. She has just logged onto the intranet.
Her schedule is empty. All her lights are removed.
An early morning call lets her know that she has thirty minutes to present herself at the office. Gina makes sure she stops at an ATM on the way. She takes out all the money, except 100 riyal.
The following day her account is frozen. There is no way of getting to the rest of her money.
Now sacked, Saga is not given much time to leave the country. In a confused state, she returns to her hometown in northern Sweden, trying to reintegrate into her normal life, but is not well.
On her way back from a holiday in Australia she decides to celebrate Christmas with some old friends in Qatar. When Saga lands at Doha airport, it has been several months since her sudden departure from the country and her job of two years. But something’s not right at passport control.
“You’re not welcome here,” says the customs officer after swiping Saga’s passport.
He has no more information to give her. Why is she blacklisted? For how long? Who can she contact for answers?
She isn’t allowed to retrieve her checked baggage. It’s going round and round on the baggage carousel in Doha. Instead she is sent, in her summer clothes from her Australian holiday, straight to a snowy Sweden. A man at Doha airport is tasked with physically escorting her all the way to the gate. But that man is also a migrant worker and when Saga cries he smiles encouragingly and asks with dark humour: “Why are you sad? You’re leaving Qatar!”
Wearing only flip flops and a summer dress, a luggageless Saga makes her way from Arlanda to the train station. Asks for a ticket to her hometown. A man on the train laughs at her clothes and says, “you know you’re heading north, don’t you?” She borrows his mobile. Calls her mum, and asks her to “bring something warm”.
Saga’s mum meets her at the station. She’s holding large duvet.
It is in Sweden that I meet Gina again. In the café at a supermarket in a smallish rural district. The last thing Gina asked Qatar Airways was if she would be allowed to return to the country as a visitor.
“The hardest thing is that I never know what is the country and what is the company. I kept asking who I should get in touch with to find out if I would be allowed in or not. And if not, how many years will it last? Is it an immigration agency or is it Qatar Airways? Who’s in charge?
Gina’s last few hours in the place that has been her home since 2011 passed by quickly. And followed a familiar pattern: A phone call saying, “you have thirty minutes to present yourself at the office”. Passport confiscated. Visa erased. A flight booked. There is no time for Gina to pack up her things, her possessions are left in the country.
“A local man met me outside the airport. I was never told who he was. He had my passport and escorted me through passport control and all the way to the gate, where he gave my passport to the staff at the gate. I really felt like, “what have I done?”
We look out over the drab supermarket café.
“On the plane I sat there thinking that now I’ve got to start building up my self-confidence again. When everything is so controlled by fear, even a small service mistake has to be explained and apologised for to a senior cabin crew member. And then it feels like, my god, I’m so stupid, so stupid I can’t even do this job without getting into trouble.”
Today Saga works for another airline and loves her job, even though she has to rely on temporary contracts being renewed. She gives a quiet and reflective impression when we meet in a town in Sweden.
“At the beginning, when I came home it was very tough. I wasn’t used to being allowed to go out. I said to my mum, “If I sit on that rock, that’s okay isn’t it, I’m allowed to be there?” Other stewardesses often find it difficult to understand why she doesn’t miss Qatar Airways, an airline that is often lauded as one of the best in the world.
Gina books a trip to Doha. The city where she became an adult. Where she saw friend after friend get fired and sent away. Where she learnt how to parry the most intrusive rules for living. But she doesn’t know what will happen at the immigration desk. Nobody can tell her in advance if she will be sent back after landing.
She must play it by ear. Hope for the best.
Expressen has been in contact with a number of people at Qatar Airways’ head office in Doha for a number of days, in order to give them an opportunity to respond to the criticism.
Senior Media Relations Officer Gayathri Pradeep and Social Media Manager Michael Stellwag refer us to email addresses from which we receive no replies.
For the Nordic market, Qatar Airways has employed Swedish PR agency Comma, whose consultant Lotta Berglin finally puts us in contact with the head office in Doha. However, we do not get to speak to any representatives of the company, but are asked to email our questions.
After about a day we finally get a brief reply, conveyed in an email from PR consultant Lotta Berglin.
“Because we do not know which individuals and which particular cases the article is based on, Qatar Airways is unable to comment on your specific questions. To do this, we must be able to find out more facts, which is impossible if we do not know which employees or former employees are making these statements,” writes Qatar Airways.