Can a slavery system include a middle class?
February 4, 2014 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Wow, very depressing. Considering the low salaries of many airline employees on other airlines, not surprising that people are willing to put up with it.
posted by larrybob at 7:08 PM on February 4, 2014

Wow. I'm not surprised that a company in a despotic theocracy could act like that at home, but I am a bit surprised that it can get away with it while operating in other countries.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:39 PM on February 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's interesting how people internalize the feeling of servitude. At least these airline employees have a way out. Growing up in a place like that would make it feel natural.
posted by Loudmax at 7:45 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Everything I read about working in one of these small Gulf dictatorships is horrifying. A friend working in the region was arrested and held without charge because his local sponsor got into a tiff with the foreign employer over fees and reported every single foreign worker to the police as someone who "fled" their post. As if someone would want to stay in one of these awful places if he weren't making a paycheck. What were these fees you may wonder? These are the cut of the foreign workers' paychecks that the local agent takes for himself. Instead of, you know, working. And that, in a nutshell, is the local workforce, if you can call it that. People who show up at an office for a couple of hours per day, drink tea, and then go home. All of the actual work is done by foreign workers and slaves. Go work in one of these places and your boss could rape or murder you and not be made to answer in any way.

Oh, and my friend? He was released (and immediately deported) only after his company paid the asking price to the local agent, who then dropped the charges. No one in the police cared that the charges were baseless, or that this was a clear case of extortion.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:47 PM on February 4, 2014 [17 favorites]

The friendly skies don't seem so friendly when your G&T is served under those conditions.
posted by arcticseal at 7:48 PM on February 4, 2014

1adam12, yes. When I was leaving Dubai I gave my taxi driver (a foreign worker from Sri Lanka) all my leftover UAE cash --about thirty U.S. dollars-- as a tip. He burst into tears -- told me he was miserable and terrified in Dubai and it meant he could go home a lot earlier. Broke my heart.
posted by Susan PG at 8:17 PM on February 4, 2014 [27 favorites]

In keeping with this week's theme of bloated sports organizations making bad decisions, let's remember this thread in 2022 when the World Cup hosts in Qatar (if it gets that far)
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:17 PM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

A couple weeks ago at ORD I saw what seemed to be two dozen of them walk past in a tight group that seemed nearly a formation. It was faintly unreal - something from another time at least.
posted by wotsac at 9:54 PM on February 4, 2014

And yet when one-trip-a-year leisure passengers in Europe are choosing an airline for long-haul flights to places like Thailand or Australia, they think about these things, usually in this order:

- price
- is there a long layover?
- price
- do they have TVs and free booze?
- price

By virtue of having no/next-to-no domestic competitors, virtually perfect weather at their desert hubs all year round, all/nearly-all wide-body planes to pack in the passengers and maximize landing slots, a multilingual staff, and brilliant marketing, Emirates, Qatar, and Etihad do a very good job of setting the standard of what air travel should be in the minds of the majority of their clientele, economy passengers: big TVs, free-flowing booze, deferential service, efficient airports, many flights a day to most big cities in Europe and Asia, and just one connection between secondary markets, places like Newcastle or Warsaw and Kuala Lumpur or Brisbane - places that used to take two connections to reach from your hometown now only take one - hugely appealing for families travelling with small kids or older people with mobility issues.

The appeal of these airlines is real as well for companies flying staff around the world and for business travelers too: the patina of marketing and anecdotal experience makes my colleagues in Hong Kong excited about flying these airlines when they go to Europe for work or at the end of their contracts. Does anyone get excited about flying Finnair? Aeroflot?

So put all together, the in-flight experience on Emirates/Etihad/Qatar - even for economy passengers - seems aspirational and luxurious - a treat - to people who don't fly long-haul much (note that none of the three airlines offer a premium-economy product, hence avoiding devaluing "normal" economy - smart move).

And yet Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, who in some ways operate on a similar model (almost all traffic is connecting from/to long-haul, wealthy home market with many budget-conscious travelers and migrant workers [who, note, are more likely to take Scoot or Tiger or AirAsia instead - compare the destinations, especially in India and China!]), have a much longer history, pioneered a lot of what we consider "normal" in economy-class air travel today, and managed to do it as their countries developed, all with unionized workers.

In the same general neighbourhood as Etihad/Emirates/Qatar, Turkish and Air India fly with unionized staff, if you're planning a trip soon.
posted by mdonley at 1:04 AM on February 5, 2014 [21 favorites]

Seconding mdonley, Emirates is the faster and cheaper way to go home for me. My friends all rave about how great it is. I still stick to Singapore Airlines. Yes it takes longer because of the layover and is always a little more expensive but I can afford to take the hit, so I choose not to fly Emirates.
posted by viramamunivar at 1:25 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

No, a slavery system can't include a group of people who are handsomely paid and can leave, if not exactly when they want then with some ease.

I feel sorry for Swedish airline staff forced to live like chattels, but my reserves of pity and disgust are largely held for the much greater number of South Asian workers who are treated like slaves, abused, forced to work in unsafe conditions and often robbed of pay. It is a scandal that we persist in glamorising despotic gulf states, bowing and scraping to oil money. It is an even larger scandal that the Indian government ignores the situation because Dubai is a convenient place to get dirty and launder money.

This story is one of many that serve as a metaphor for Qatar, Dubai et al. Beneath the glamor and the shiny buildings are a disposable South Asian slave class and a professional class drawn from Europe (and increasingly India) who are useful and valued for precisely as long as they toe the line and are needed.

Emirates, and I imagine Qatar Airways too, creep me out. Their cabin crew have the faint air of being assembled using the template of an Ottoman brothel - a smorgasbord of attractive, young cabin crew trained for deference and strictly weeded for signs of ugliness or independence. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising the women are treated as if on retainer off the plane.

Above all, the most striking thing is the obsession with sexual propriety for women. When the Gulf heats up each summer, the rich decamp to Europe for fun. For the women, this means shopping and a bit more freedom. For the men it is time to drink, have sex, stay out late and let their hair down. The hypocrisy, and minimal regard for discretion when abroad, are extraordinary.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:58 AM on February 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Better or worse than US cruise ship employees?
posted by miyabo at 5:30 AM on February 5, 2014

A friend of mine interviewed for Emirates. As in, got to the 'okay let's sign the contract' stage.

When he got to the parts about

- getting one unmonitored (!) phone call per week from Dubai
- them retaining his passport

He drew a giant X across the contract and walked out. He did find it very funny that they make the male and female attendants sleep in different dorms. "Um, how many straight guys do they think are applying as flight attendants, seriously?"
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:56 AM on February 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

how many straight guys do they think are applying as flight attendants, seriously?
Given that Qatar (and all of the Gulf Cooperative Countries) arguably consider homosexuality a death penalty offense, I'm guessing they didn't seriously consider this as a possibility. Typically, the actual punishment is imprisonment, but I'm guessing no one considers that a significant improvement. Their proposed solution is a "medical test" to detect homosexuality and to prevent entry to anyone who fails.

Although the treatment detailed in the article is horrifying, it pales in comparison to the treatment afforded other guest workers from third world countries. Everything I've read on frequent flyer forums suggests that Ethiad and Emirates are much better places to work, but I'm still quite hesitant to fly them myself.
posted by Lame_username at 8:27 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

My friend's sister was a flight attendant with Qatar Airlines for many years (until maybe 3 years ago). I sent this to him and asked whether it was true per her experiences.
posted by tippiedog at 8:50 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Given that Qatar (and all of the Gulf Cooperative Countries) arguably consider homosexuality a death penalty offense, I'm guessing they didn't seriously consider this as a possibility.

Well, yeah. But it's a funny blind spot to see in a major international corporation.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:10 AM on February 5, 2014

I guess I don't feel that sorry for middle class people with other options who go to Dubai or Qatar for jobs that pay a lot, sign contracts with all sorts of horrifying rules and then are surprised that they live in theocracies under all sorts of horrifying rules, so they leave after losing some money and a lot of inconvenience. (I had a friend who did that, though she actually didn't have problems other than being unable to celebrate Jewish holidays.)
posted by jeather at 9:21 AM on February 5, 2014

unable to celebrate Jewish holidays

Is practicing Judaism actually a crime in Dubai or Qatar? (I know it would be in Saudi Arabia, where non-Islamic religions, and indeed atheism, are forbidden. Presumably all the Filipino Catholic gastarbeiters would be quietly tolerated as long as they don't actually pray or do anything Catholic in public; I'm guessing they're not coerced into converting to Islam in order to work.)
posted by acb at 9:44 AM on February 5, 2014

Oh - and don't ask for kosher meals on Qatar or Emirates (I ended up on a Lufthansa flight instead, enough said). I recommend the Hindu vegetarian or Halal.
posted by Dreidl at 9:48 AM on February 5, 2014

Is practicing Judaism actually a crime in Dubai or Qatar?

Well, you can't bring in Jewish stuff, and it's not like you can get matzah or put your menorah in the window during Chanukah, you can't go to services on the high holidays, etc. Sure, you probably won't get in trouble for doing things privately at home, and with friends if you can find any who want to celebrate.

But, as I said, when you go there because the salaries are very high for foreign professionals, I have no sympathy for this, because you're essentially propping up this entire slave-based system and then complaining about minor inconveniences that you knew were going to happen.
posted by jeather at 10:36 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't say any of what they went through were "minor" inconveniences that they "knew were going to happen".

One can empathize with the migrant workers AND the air crew. Empathy is not a limited resource.
posted by divabat at 11:02 AM on February 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh - and don't ask for kosher meals on Qatar or Emirates

I had an observant (possibly Orthodox) Jewish coworker at an academic job in Melbourne some years ago. He was sufficiently observant to always wear a yarmulke and appear quite conspicuously Jewish. I once was discussing airlines for flying westward with him and he said something like “I hear Emirates are good, but I wouldn't take them; I might be murdered if I did”. I'm not sure whether he was joking or not.
posted by acb at 12:10 PM on February 5, 2014

My understanding is that you can request kosher meals over the phone or via a travel agent, and that the request is generally honored. It doesn't appear on their website, though. The problem for Jews flying Emirates wouldn't be on the plane; it would be going via Dubai, particularly if the flight were delayed and they had to pass through immigration. Foreigners are effectively powerless, and Dubai's legal system is pretty opaque. A bit of petty official anti-Semitism and boom, you find yourself locked up.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:47 PM on February 5, 2014

We have a boycott of Emirates and Etihad in the Sense household already (we're of South Asian descent, so it's kind of a no-brainer for us), and I already felt creepy vibes from Qatar and a couple of the other airlines in the region, despite having not flown them. Wish I could say this surprised me, but . . . nope.

I do wish this story was published by something that looked a little more reputable; the site makes me think it's some sort of News Corp-esque UK tabloid. The translation leaves something to be desired also.

I also wish more Indian people would stop putting low cost ahead of everything when making their travel plans to/from India. It's shameful and infuriating to me how many of them fly these airlines, oblivious or indifferent to what their money is supporting.
posted by CommonSense at 2:51 PM on February 5, 2014

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