The ITF has won a critical international ruling that Qatar’s repressive regime is guilty of allowing its state-owned airline to institutionalize discrimination by firing pregnant cabin crew — a victory that mirrors a similar long, hard struggle to protect pregnant seafarers aboard flag-of-convenience ships.
The International Labour Organization ruled in June that Qatar Airways violated both national and international agreements when it fired female cabin crew who become pregnant. And it found the Qatari government breached international obligations by turning a blind eye to these offences — not surprising, given Qatar’s horrible record of worker abuse, some of which made headlines when it was revealed one worker had died every two days in 2014 as FIFA World Cup sites were readied.
People around the world are rightfully appalled. In just one act of admirable solidarity, a petition is demanding that Barcelona FC — the renowned and progressive Spanish soccer team whose shirts bear Qatar Airways’s logo — drop the airline as a sponsor until it treats workers fairly. The petition collected a full 40,000 signatures in its first 24 hours and it’s still growing. You can find the petition here and the ITF’s position on it here.
Equally unsurprising is the discriminatory treatment female seafarers have suffered at the hands of questionable flag-of-convenience shipowners. Defending the rights of women at sea has been a difficult road for the ITF, but there have been some victories.
For female seafarers who become pregnant and opt to take maternity leave, their rights differ depending on where they work.
If they sail under the flag of their own country, they’re covered by that country’s legislation and any rights guaranteed under their union’s collective bargaining agreements. If they work on a Flag of Convenience vessel, they’re covered by the legislation of that flag state – which might not include any maternity rights at all.
However, ITF-approved agreements do guarantee minimum rights on FOC ships where they are in force. ITF-approved agreements for merchant vessels stipulate that pregnant seafarers must be repatriated at the cost of the company, and must receive two months’ full pay in compensation. Timing of repatriation may vary depending on where the seafarer is working and her stage of pregnancy. Where the ship is trading coastally, or where a doctor is on board, it is generally safer for pregnant women to work later into a pregnancy — in Britain, up to 28 weeks. On deep sea vessels or very high-speed craft, the risks need to be assessed carefully.
In general, pregnancy should never be treated as a disciplinary offence. Pregnancy testing before seafarers are employed may violate International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 183.
Just as the ITF fought to bring these protections to seafarers, it will fight on for workers in Qatar and elsewhere.