The Wall Street Journal has a striking item today on the life of flight attendants on Dubai’s state-owned Emirates Airline.* With its descriptions of high-rise Dubai living and poolside relaxation, it doesn’t sound so bad. But what’s striking is how similar the Emirates standards for flight attendants today are to U.S. standards of yesteryear. Consider:
- “Tough rules are enforced, including some that would be deemed discriminatory in the West, such as weight requirements and a no-pregnancy policy for unwed women.”
- The carrier meticulously recruits attractive young men and women from around the world. . . . As part of the airline’s standard training, Ms. Rodriguez attended beauty and etiquette training. She’s required to keep her makeup fresh, even on long flights. High-heels are a must when she’s in uniform, even on the ground. Both men and women are expected to get manicures and facials.”
- “Innocuous onboard flirting is condoned: Emirates’ rules require attendants to politely accept a business card or phone number if it’s proffered by a passenger.”
- “If a single female attendant shows up pregnant, she’s fired. Openly gay male attendants need not apply. Premarital sex and homosexuality are both illegal in Dubai.”
- “Crew members aren’t allowed to drink in the 12 hours before a flight. Smoking and eating in uniform are prohibited. If an attendant gains too much weight, he or she is put on a diet by the airline’s resident nutritionists.”
- “Seventy-five percent of total flight crew must be female.”
U.S. airlines used to enforce similar standards on those who were then, rather quaintly to my generation’s ears, called stewardesses. They were forced to retire in their thirties, faced weight and height limitations and gender boundaries, and fired if they married or got pregnant. Between 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was enacted, and 1991, when weight standards were loosened and revised upward by age, cabin crew members gained full protection of the law, although a few restrictions related to performing safety functions remain. (More information is available on their union’s website.)
For now, Dubai bans transportation unions, but that hasn’t stopped people, including (or especially) U.S. nationals, from wanting to fly for Emirates, as you can see in pilot and cabin crew discussion forums. So, the question remains: will Dubai remain a sort of bizarre Randian paradise of labor discrimination, or will it eventually go the way of major industrialized economies and offer crucial protections to workers? International pressure is moving in the latter direction.
*No, that’s not a typo.