Airline Announces It Will No Longer Sack Pregnant Crew Members

They’ll still be placed on unpaid leave with Singapore Airlines, though, and will have to apply for ground positions.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
singapore airlines crew pregnant
Gender equality groups have been challenging Singapore Airlines' controversial policy toward pregnant cabin crew for more than 10 years. Photo: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images 

Until a few months ago, it was standard policy for Singapore Airlines (SIA) to fire pregnant cabin crew. Upon becoming pregnant, the crew member would be placed on unpaid leave for the duration of their term and forced to leave the company the day after submitting their child’s birth certificate. 

They would then have to reapply to the airline under a returning crew scheme, with no guarantee of re-employment, as part of an arrangement that gender equality groups have long condemned as outdated and indefensible.

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But that arrangement has now changed, according to a policy update that was introduced on July 15 and publicly revealed by the Straits Times on Monday. The airline’s pregnant cabin crew will now receive up to 16 weeks of postnatal maternity leave before automatically being rostered to fly again. They’ll still be placed on unpaid leave but will be able to apply for ground positions within Singapore Airlines in areas such as administration, passenger feedback, event management, and content creation.

The new policy was announced in a letter, obtained by the Straits Times, which described it as being designed “to further support our cabin crew during and after their pregnancy.” The letter further insisted that the airline would do its best to offer as many ground positions to pregnant cabin crew members as possible in order to maintain their income, suggesting that obtaining employment is not guaranteed for pregnant crew members placed on unpaid leave.

SIA’s heel turn comes after more than a decade of criticism from gender equality groups, who have derided the company’s policy as “discriminatory and unfair.” Executive director for Singapore’s Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Corinna Lim, penned a letter as far back as September 2010 questioning why the so-called “Quit Flying Requirement” was in place. 

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“If the basis is solely to protect female attendants or foetuses, can this not be achieved in a fairer way by providing alternative employment for female attendants during pregnancy and allowing them to fly again after their pregnancy?” Lim wrote. “We hope SIA will respond to these questions.”

SIA claimed at the time that the policy was for the safety of both the pregnant crew member and their child, saying that, “The physical demands of the job mean that all our cabin crew must be fit to perform their duties, and as a responsible employer, we would not think of compromising the physical well-being of pregnant crew and their unborn children.”

“We also recognise,” the airline added, “that more can be done in the best interests of our female cabin crew population.”

Speaking to the Straits Times this week, Lim acknowledged that the airline’s new policy was a major improvement, while at the same time raising concerns that it may not go far enough to ensure crew members have equitable access to reemployment after giving birth. 

“Are there other rules, explicit or implicit, that will bar postpartum mothers from flying for SIA, such as requirement on physique?” she questioned. SIA merely told the paper, “We maintain the same grooming standards for all cabin crew.”

A former cabin crew member, meanwhile, told the paper that she wishes the changes had been implemented back in 2010, when she had her contract terminated after giving birth to her first child.

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“I was the sole breadwinner of the family then as my ex-husband was pursuing his studies,” the former crew member said. “We needed the money so I hid the pregnancy for as long as possible to keep working.”

The policy change aligns SIA more closely with other carriers in the region. According to Bloomberg, Australia’s Qantas Airways, for example, similarly offers ground positions followed by maternity leave, as well as the option for returning air crew to negotiate part-time roles. Korean Air and Asiana Airlines meanwhile offer as much as two years’ leave for pregnant flight attendants, though it’s unclear what proportion of this, if any, is paid.

The commercial airline industry as a whole, however, has a chequered history with gender-based discrimination. Female pilots remain a significant minority, representing less than 10 percent of the industry’s total as of 2021, while women are overrepresented among cabin crew, where issues of sex-based discrimination have long been pronounced.

In 2015, Qatar Airways was forced to relax its own controversial policies that required female staff to ask permission to get married and empowered it to sack pregnant cabin crew members, after the UN’s International Labour Organisation ruled they discriminated against women. Employment contracts at the airline previously included a clause stating: “The company reserves the right to automatically terminate your contract as a flying cabin crew member should you become pregnant.”

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In August 2015, a spokeswoman for Qatar Airways announced that they had phased out such policies ​​“over the past six months,” and that women who became pregnant were now offered temporary ground jobs.

“Our policies have evolved with the airline’s growth,” the spokeswoman said.

As recently as 2015, UAE airline Emirates also held a policy in which cabin crew who became pregnant within the first three years of their employment were required to leave.

They have since reversed this policy, and now offer 145 days of maternity leave, 45 of which are paid. But last year, staff complained of “weight police” at the airline, who weighed employees upon their return to ensure they met the carrier’s image standards. 

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