Just over ten years ago, Agnieszka donned the famous Emirates cabin crew hat for the very first time. She was proud to finally be wearing the iconic uniform after successfully becoming one of the airline’s glamorous flight attendants.
Just weeks earlier, she had been flown by Emirates to its home in Dubai – a cosmopolitan and glamorous oasis on the Arabian peninsula. Her life had been turned upside down but there was so much to look forward to.
Sure, the training had been tough – Emirates expected the very best of their cabin crew. Agnieszka was equipped to deal with in-flight emergencies, medical incidents, fire drills and of course the legendary Emirates service.
But even getting the chance to take part in the training course hadn’t been easy. The recruitment event took two full days and the competition was fierce. Held in a Five Star hotel in her European home city, Agnieszka (not her real name) and the many others who attended listened to presentations about the life that awaited them.
The Emirates recruiters promised the hopefuls a modern tax-free lifestyle with paid accommodation in luxury apartments. They were shown marketing photos of the famous Sheikh Zayed Road – it’s towering skyscrapers reaching up into clear blue skies.
The dream, however, isn’t looking quite so picture perfect for Agnieszka anymore. And nor is it for many of her colleagues – Idle galley chit chat about their resignation plans is a common way to bond nowadays. Times had been good, they agree, but now they would rather take their chances in their home countries.
Agnieszka says she still enjoys her job and describes her past experience at Emirates as “amazing.” But those days are have faded away – instead, she’s becoming increasingly dismayed at how Emirates is being run and how its many expat staff are being treated. Over the past 12-months, conditions have quickly deteriorated and moral is now lower than what she can ever remember.
Like so many other crew, Agnieszka doesn’t live in a luxury apartment in the centre of Dubai. She has no views of the Burj Khalifa and she’s not a stone’s throw away from the beach either. Just a few miles away from the world-famous sights of Dubai is the desert – scattered with identikit tower blocks, purpose-built for Emirates cabin crew.
She agree’s, they’re okay. Certainly a lot better than most workers in Dubai get but it’s not even close to what she was promised when she signed the contract. Not that she is allowed to express her dissatisfaction with management – there are no unions, so when a decision is made, it’s final.
When we discussed the situation, Agnieszka wrote that she felt like “our rights and benefits have been totally violated.” It’s a common feeling amongst the airline’s cabin crew community. A new internal news service, nicknamed ‘Crew Pulse’ recently had the comments function disabled when cabin crew started to speak up against their superiors.
She points to a long list of recent changes that have been made by airline bosses – none of which seemingly benefit the cabin crew. A big concern for Agnieszka is Emirate’s medical insurance scheme – after all, without it, getting medical treatment in Dubai is horrendously expensive.
But now Emirates has changed its medical benefits – cabin crew will now be expected to cover up to 30% of the cost of hospital treatment. A sum that many simply can’t afford. The pressure for sick crew to return to work as quickly as possible is huge. Salaries are quickly reduced to half pay after just 15 days sick leave.
The airline has made it perfectly clear they only want young cabin crew in their prime – Even if staff have given Emirates many years of dedicated service. Injured cabin crew are forced to resign. Crew members who reach their 50th birthday will only have their contracts renewed for one year before being forced out the company.
It’s not just Agnieszka who has become dejected about the way Emirates is treating its own staff. Many cabin crew have taken to calling sick in order to get days off. The situation recently got so bad, Lynda Briody, the airline’s Cabin Crew Manager sent a memo to her staff saying “firm action” including dismissal would be taken against anyone who “abused” the sickness policy.
While Briody said she felt “compelled” to pen the warning to address “unacceptable” sickness levels, it seems to have backfired. A growing discord amongst the Emirates cabin crew ranks has seen sickness rates soar in the days following Briody’s stern telling-off.
The cost of living is also causing consternation. Agnieszka tells us crew find deductions on their wage slips for seemingly no apparent reason. Wages at the airline haven’t risen in over a year and the company bonus scheme has been put on ice. At the same time, Dubai has just introduced Value Added Tax (VAT) at 5% – in an already famously expensive city. Shoppers have already noticed
But while cabin crew might feel like they’ve got it bad, Agnieszka points to the airline’s Cabin Service Attendants (CSA’s) who have it even worse. Emirates employ these workers to take care of the shower spa’s on their luxury A380’s – and while they aren’t ‘cabin crew’ many were employed under the pretence that one day they would become one.
Agnieszka says she knows of just 50 CSA’s who eventually succeeded in their dream to become cabin crew. The rest are paid a measly basic monthly salary of €300 with a much lower hourly flying rate than the cabin crew they work alongside.
If they didn’t already feel like second-class citizens then a new policy for crew rest on ultra-long-haul flights should make it clear. According to Agnieszka, Emirates reconfigured their new A380’s with less room in the crew rest compartment as before – as a result, there’s no room for CSA’s to rest in a bunk. Instead, they have to sit on a jumpseat with a curtain closed.
When it comes to work conditions Agnieszka agree’s that Emirates has always been strict and has more than its fair share of rules. But the pressure is now becoming unbearable for many crew.
“Working for Emirates was amazing years ago but nowadays nearly everyone is unhappy,” she explains, likening her working life to a “nightmare”.
She says it feels like she “has no freedom” and many of her colleagues spend their time on board fearful that the tiniest mistake could see them dismissed. Emirates’ fleet of A380 aircraft have around 18 surveillance cameras throughout the cabins – staff are monitored and quickly reprimanded should they be seen to be acting incorrectly.
Of course, as long as passengers are getting a good service, why should they care how working and living conditions have changed for the airline’s cabin crew? Yet Agnieszka claims they should be concerned – she tells of deep-rooted coverups and an emphasis on service that compromises safety.
Last summer, she points to an incident in which a purser attacked a Captain inside the cockpit of an Emirates aircraft. It’s widely believed that the purser was involved in a love spat but Emirates claimed the purser was simply suffering a “seizure”. Nonetheless, the staff involved were quickly repatriated to their home countries. Media outlets in the UAE were forbidden from reporting on the incident.
Agnieszka doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be working for Emirates. She expects to resign within months – although wants to continue doing the job she loves – if only conditions were different. She’s not alone, many of her colleagues have openly spoken about leaving the company.
For now, the Emirates cabin crew community and the airline they work for remain at loggerheads. In light of the economic woes that have beset the airline, Agnieszka is doubtful whether conditions will improve anytime soon.