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A case of discrimination

Print edition : Oct 24, 2003 T+T-

Against the background of a Supreme Court ruling lowering their flying age, Air-India's hostesses accuse the airline of pursuing a policy that discriminates against its women employees.

AS a company, Air-India is besieged with problems that are common to several state-run enterprises across the world. However, what sets it apart is that it stands accused of severe gender discrimination. Consider these:

Air-India's hostesses are junior to all male crew members on board irrespective of the fact that some of them have more than 30 years of experience. Even women in executive positions are subordinate to male workmen in flight. Women are not eligible for supervisory positions on board.

All crew undergo a weight check before boarding a flight. But women are grounded or penalised if they are overweight. Male crew are permitted to fly even if they are 40 kg in excess.

Once a year, women crew members above 35 years have to undergo an internal gynaecological examination. Male crew members are not subjected to any form of medical examination.

Women are allowed to have only two children while men do not have to adhere to the rule.

And until recently, air hostesses were not allowed to wear spectacles, as they would affect their looks.

Air-India is quite prepared to retire its "aging" women crew, but unwilling to do the same to its aging fleet, which is a major reason why passengers prefer other international carriers.

If these are not discriminatory enough, a Supreme Court review on September 24 allowed Air-India to lower the flying age for women crew members from 58 to 50. As a result of a review following a Supreme Court ruling on the age issue on July 11, 108 women have been rendered redundant. The male crew members are allowed to fly until they are 58, the age of retirement as stipulated by the Government of India. The ruling has come as a setback to not only the airhostesses, who have been battling for equal opportunities, but for all women's rights campaigns.

In fact, gender discrimination takes on a whole new dimension when it comes to India's international carrier. Its policies are blatantly sexist, yet Air-India is far from being apologetic. Little was known about Air-India's gender bias until the age issue surfaced. Some of the facts the women crew members disclosed to Frontline were shocking.

The Air-India Cabin Crew Association (AICCA), which initially claimed that it supported women crew on the same issue of age, later said: "This (the lowering of flying age) is for their benefit, as they wish for a peaceful and tension-free life at home with their families in their middle age." The other argument was that a large percentage of the airhostesses were willing to be grounded because they would enjoy better benefits. Besides, the Air-India management pointed out, it would amount to substantial financial savings for the airline. More than three-fourths of an Air-India hostess' salary comes from the flying allowance. By grounding 104 hostesses this year, the airline hopes to save a substantial amount.

Although the Supreme Court ruling has vindicated Air-India's position on the age issue, it is not clear why the airline is taking such a stubborn stand against its "girls", as the airhostesses refer to themselves. Ever since Air-India was formed, women crew members have been treated virtually like a different species. In the 1960s, air hostesses had to retire at the age of 30 or when they got married - whichever came first. Following strong protests in the 1970s, the airline raised the retirement age to 35 years, and subsequently to 45 or at the time of the first pregnancy. The General Manager could extend the working age to 45 years, one year at a time, depending on medical fitness. None of these clauses was applied to men. In 1988, a review conducted by the Parliament Petitions Committee recommended that the discrimination between male and female cabin crew members be removed completely. Indian Airlines complied with the recommendations but Air-India held out. Suddenly, in 1993 in spite of the matter being sub judice it raised the retirement age of air hostesses to 50, subject to annual medical checks. The struggle over the age issue was carried out on the grounds of gender discrimination. But after the Supreme Court ruling the hostesses have had to concede defeat in court.

"Age should have nothing to do with our capabilities. We are completely capable of handling a flight and more importantly, we want to fly," says a 52-year-old air hostess, a member of the Air-India Hostesses Association (AIHA) that is spearheading the battle against gender discrimination. "The entire Supreme Court case was based on a misrepresentation of facts," said a member on condition of anonymity. "We have never said we want to be grounded. And there are absolutely no added benefits working on ground, as the AICCA says," the member said. In fact, if the "girls" are grounded they will no longer be entitled to the flying allowance. A senior air hostess earns approximately Rs.20,000 as basic salary besides Rs.75,000 as flying allowance.

"If Air-India is determined to ground us, why not compensate our salaries?" asked a hostess who has just turned 51. It is obvious that the airline is insisting on grounding women in order to save money. "But it is unlikely that this will bring any financial savings. Air-India will end up shelling out virtually the same amount," said Mohan Bir Singh, an advocate for the AIHA. According to him, there has been a freeze on recruitment, which means flights are short of crew. The airline has to pay "a crew shortfall allowance", which amounts to approximately Rs.3.89 crores a month. Moreover, the hostesses are being paid a "productivity linked allowance" for services that are not part of the job they are hired for. "Where is the saving?" asks Singh.

Said an air hostess: "All we are asking is, give us the choice to fly until the age of 58, which is the official retirement age. As employees of the GoI, we are entitled to it. Besides, if the rule applies to us, why doesn't it apply to the men? Just because they are men it doesn't make them any more capable." According to her, many of the men are terribly unfit but have escaped notice because they do not have to go through stringent medical examinations. "In fact, last month two flights had to taxi back to the terminal just before take-off, after pursers developed chest pain. Neither of the men was grounded. Instead, the airline inconvenienced hundreds of passengers and paid lakhs of rupees for not being able to generate flights as per their time slot and to meet the additional charges for parking. When one of our girls was found to weigh a kilo in excess, she was grounded for two months."

According to the AIHA, the choice of the cut-off age at 50 years is arbitrary, and the criteria for determining the age are illogical. For instance, there is no bona fide occupational qualification that hostesses above 50 years cannot fulfil.

According to the AIHA, what is even more surprising is the Supreme Court's stand on the matter. (In March 2000 a Parliamentary Committee recommended that Air-India remove its discriminatory policies). The Bombay High Court also ruled that Air-India increase the flying age to 58 years. But Air-India did not honour the court's decision. In 2002, following a series of legal battles, the AIHA and the management came to an consensual understanding in which Air-India insisted that the interchangeability of functions be a pre-condition for extending the age of retirement to 58 years. The hostesses have, in fact, been demanding interchangeability of functions so that they become eligible for supervisory positions. "Given that we had reached an agreement and the High Court had directed Air-India to change its policies, we were very disappointed with the Supreme Court. We are even more upset with Air-India, whose determination to ground people who have served it for 30 years seems like such a betrayal," the hostess said.

Dismissing the arguments of the air hostesses as non-issues, Rajeev Joshi, vice-president of the AICCA, said the age criterion had been blown out of proportion. According to an Air-India spokesman, it is not just the gender issue: "The Supreme Court would have given a different verdict if it was." He told Frontline: "The age issue should be looked at with a certain perspective." To begin with, he said, "the girls were recruited to serve passengers. The airline wanted young and beautiful women to be the face of Air-India. How can we keep up our service standards with women who don't look fresh and capable?"

According to him, it is extremely tough to amend the government's policies. "These women were recruited to fly and would retire according to Air-India regulations. We all know how difficult it is to change anything in the government. We are not against the age limit going up and we also want interchangeability, but our hands are tied," he said.

"We were hired to fly, not to distribute tickets or to escort VIPs," said an air hostess. "Why is it that the government is blamed when it is convenient to them? If they wanted to amend the rules they could have and they have. Obviously, Air-India is a law unto itself, considering that it has even been defiant of various court directives."

Ironically, more men than women are due to retire this year. About 449 male crew members are above 50 years as against 108 air hostesses. If the financial argument holds good, it would have made sense to retire the whole lot. Yet, while age is currently a burning issue, Air-India's 750 air hostesses recognise that the demand for equal rights in all areas is more important. Hoping to find support among women politicians, the hostesses have knocked on the doors of Margaret Alva, Renuka Choudhary and Mamata Banerjee. Lawyers have told them that unless Parliament takes up their cause, it is unlikely that amendments will be made.