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British Airways urged to ditch Qatar alliance over rights abuse

British national carrier is relying on Qatar Airways planes and crews to cover staff strike, amid concerns over the Gulf carrier's rights record
A Qatar Airways Airbus A350 at Singapore airshow (AFP)

British Airways is facing calls to end an agreement that has seen Qatar Airways planes and crews provide strike cover to the UK national carrier, amid concerns over the Gulf state's poor human rights and labour record.

On Thursday, British Airways cabin crew announced plans to strike for a further two weeks in August, including over a traditional busy holiday weekend, in a long-running dispute over pay and staff sanctions.

British Airways needs to take a long hard look at itself, especially over Qatar Airways' treatment of women 

- Unite union

Union organisers and campaigners have told Middle East Eye that British Airways' use of Qatar Airways planes and crews, under a so-called wet leasing deal, poses serious questions given the Gulf carrier's poor labour rights record and history of sexism.

Qatar Airways is one of the fastest-growing airlines in the world, known for its luxury service and fleet of new aircraft, but campaigners say it keeps "tight control" over its staff, housing them in restricted company-owned housing and not letting leave these "company towns".

Labour freedom campaigners also say the airline has a record of discriminating against women, firing workers who get married, become pregnant or are overweight.

"Qatar Airways have been found to have broken international labour standards," a spokesperson for UK union Unite, which represents strike British Airways workers, told MEE.

The spokesman said campaign groups had documented numerous cases of sexism and said that female staff had to ask permission from the airline to get married.

The International Labour Organisation ruled in 2015 that Qatar Airlines discriminated against women with a contract clause stating it can terminate contracts over pregnancies.

Since then the firm has amended its employment contracts so women who become pregnant are now offered temporary ground jobs and staff can also get married after notifying the company.

However, an international union source told MEE that the Qatar Airways labour standards are "still stuck in the 1950s" and that little reform had taken place.

'Served by American grandmothers'

Last month the chief executive officer of Qatar Airways sparked an international backlash for "incredibly offensive" comment made about female flight attendants.

During a speech in Dublin, Akbar al-Baker boasted that the average age of his airline's cabin crew is 26. He said: "So there is no need for you to travel on these crap American carriers. You know you are always being served by grandmothers on American carriers."

British Airways refused to comment on the allegations against Qatar Airways. Instead, in a statement the carrier said that Qatar Airways had won "numerous awards" and had a "diverse customer base".

Qatar Airways owns 20 percent of British Airways' owner, International Airlines Group

The call for British Airways to raise labour rights concerns comes after it signed a deal with Qatar Airways in June to provide crews and nine Airbus A320 and A321 airlines to cover a two-week strike in July.

Qatar Airways owns 20 percent of BA's owner, International Airlines Group, and wields considerable influence over the aviation giant.

British Airways needed to apply for approval from the UK government and the Civil Aviation Authority for the deal because Qatari aircraft and crew are coming in from outside the EU.

Union officials say this opens up the possibility that the deal is in "breach of competition rules" if British Airways is paying below market rate for the aircraft and crew.

The Gulf carrier has plenty of spare aircraft because its short-haul routes to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia have been grounded amid the Saudi-led blockade on the country.

'Convenient deal'

Airline consultant and blogger Alex Macheras told MEE: "Qatar had a particularly large presence in Saudi Arabia [and UAE]. With the loss of these key markets, Qatar would actively be looking to optimise aircraft usage elsewhere.

"So while BA's cabin crew industrial action isn't good for those on the top at BA, it has come at an almost 'convenient' time for Qatar Airways."

Qatar Airways does not discriminate on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion or nationality

- Rossen Dimitrov, Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday. In an interview last year, Rossen Dimitrov, a senior executive at the company, said allegations made by unions and campaign groups were "patently false".

He said: "Qatar Airways respects the laws of every country it serves and does not discriminate on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion or nationality."

He said the airline offers pay, housing, global medical coverage and other benefits that "result in a highly desirable career opportunity".

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