Air Canada flight attendants say they were lined up, graded on appearance: union complaint

An Air Canada flight attendant walks through the terminal at the Halifax airport on Sept. 20, 2011.
An Air Canada flight attendant walks through the terminal at the Halifax airport on Sept. 20, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

In a human rights complaint waged by the union representing Air Canada employees, flight attendants describe being lined up in the hallway and individually marked on their appearance, among other incidents.

CUPE, which represents 8,500 flight attendants at Air Canada and Rouge, filed the complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission this past month, which alleges “systemic discrimination and harassment of flight attendants.”

The complaint was filed on March 7 and describes incidents dating back to January 2017.

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The complaint states that flight staff were instructed during initial training sessions to display the Air Canada uniform by wearing it in front of colleagues, being directed to “strut their stuff” by walking down what the document described as a “runway with a spectator section.”

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“These individuals were critiques and judged by management on a pass/fail basis on their ability to put on this ‘show’ for their colleagues and management,” stated the document.

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Also during training sessions, the complaint states flight attendants were lined up in the hallway and graded individually on characteristics of their appearance – including how they wore the uniform, their bodies, makeup, clothes and nails. Comments made during this ritual reportedly included that their “eyes were too small” or skin colour was “too white.”

The union claims in its complaint that female flight attendants were told to wear the dress from the uniform options in order to “show more cleavage” to the customers.

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Finally, the document states that female colleagues were critiqued for their appearance to a greater extent than their male colleagues, and were reportedly reminded frequently to review the grooming guide to improve their makeup. Managers are also accused to have made comments to a male flight attendant during an individual assessment because he was “prancing” when he walked.

Beyond critiques of physical appearance and mannerisms, flight attendants are also claiming to have endured more serious incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination. For example, a pregnant team member was reportedly told during her debriefing that her pregnancy could cause “negative alterations of her mood,” which she “ought to be aware of” to avoid letting it affect her work.

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Another team member claims that his evaluating On-Board Service Manager (OBSM) harassed him in private and in front of other colleagues. Incidents included attempting to contact him in the days leading up to his evaluation and suggesting that they could share a crew rest bunk together on a flight. The document then states that the OBSM sat “uncomfortably close” to that team member on that same flight, inquired about his marital status, ethnic background and later asked the member if he would carry him off the crew transport bus by his “wet handle.”

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A complaint about this incident, as well as others involving this team member and this specific OBSM, were filed under Air Canada’s Harassment Policy, which was eventually dismissed as “unsubstantiated.”

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This complaint comes amid a stream of complaints concerning the treatment of flight attendants in North American airlines. Just last week, Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson testified before Congress that flight attendants are regular victims of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.

“Even today, we are called pet names, patted on the rear … and subjected to incidents not fit for print,” testified Nelson in a written statement. The Association of Flight Attendants is a union representing over 50,000 flight attendants.

“We call on the industry to take this issue seriously.”

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In a statement released by CUPE along with the complaint, a representative describes Air Canada’s lack of attention to harassment issues as a “constant issue.”

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“Our complaint states that Air Canada, through its policies, procedures and practices, fosters harassment and discrimination in the workplace, and this must stop now. We now turn to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, since Air Canada has repeatedly failed to deal adequately with harassment and discrimination complaints by our members,” concluded CUPE’s Air Canada component VP Beth Mahan, in a statement.

Global News reached out to CUPE about the complaint, who responded that no further comment could be made until the case is heard in front of the Human Rights Commission. Global News also reached out to Air Canada, and a representative responded denying that there is a systemic issue at Air Canada.

“This filing is clearly targeted at Air Canada’s recently launched On Board Service Manager program, which was implemented to further improve customer service. Such programs are common in the industry, and we have already seen significant customer satisfaction gains as a result. That said, we have zero tolerance for discrimination or harassment. We take such matters very seriously and have established processes in place to deal with any such complaints and to act upon them,” said Peter Fitzpatrick in a statement.

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