Air Canada flight staff graded on appearance, sexually harassed by management, union alleges

The union representing Air Canada flight attendants alleges the employees face rampant sexual harassment and discrimination, including being paraded in front of staff and judged on their physical appearance.

Airline says it has zero tolerance for harassment or discrimination

The union representing Air Canada flight attendants alleges they face rampant sexual harassment and discrimination. (Air Canada)

Dress to show more cleavage. Freshen up hair and makeup on the job. Line up for a physical critique. These are just some of the instructions Air Canada flight attendants were given in a bid to improve customer service, their union alleges in a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

CUPE filed the complaint this month, claiming that Air Canada flight attendants face rampant sexual harassment and discrimination, and that the airline has done little to address the problem.

The complaint comes as flight attendants across North America are becoming more vocal about harassment in their industry.

Air Canada employs 8,500 flight attendants. The airline says it has zero tolerance for harassment or discrimination, and that the union never shared its claims of a systemic problem before filing the complaint.

'Strut their stuff'

CUPE's complaint follows recent changes at Air Canada including stylish new uniforms for staff.

The union claims Air Canada ran training sessions where flight attendants had to model the new uniform, and were told to "strut their stuff" down a makeshift runway — complete with a spin at the end — in what the union called "a sexualized fashion show."

"These individuals were critiqued and judged by management on a pass/fail basis on their ability to put on this 'show' for their colleagues and management," says the complaint.

It claims one attendant failed because he was "prancing" too much on the catwalk. The employee — who is gay — found the comment upsetting.

Air Canada staff show off new uniforms unveiled in 2017. How flight attendants were asked to model the uniforms is part of a human rights complaint filed by the employees' union. (Air Canada)

The complaint also claims flight attendants faced scrutiny off the runway: Managers lined them up in the hallway in their new uniforms and graded how they looked. They even assessed their makeup and nails, the union said.

"They were subjected to degrading and discriminatory comments," said the complaint, including critiques such as "eyes were too small" and skin colour was "too white."

The statement also says a manager told female flight attendants they should wear the optional dress uniform more often "in order to 'show more cleavage' to customers."

The complaint also referenced an updated handbook for flight attendants that dictates what colour and type of undergarment to wear, and dedicates three pages to makeup advice for female employees. Tips include the best way to apply lipstick and how to accent eyebrows with a highlighter.

Sexual harassment allegations

The complaint also includes individual sexual harassment allegations that CUPE claims stem from a recently launched effort to improve customer service by having managers coach crew members while on the plane. 

The union claims some managers are taking liberties with the flight attendants.

In one allegation, a male manager observing an on-board crew made origami breasts with the linen napkins and placed an oxygen mask over his groin during a safety demonstration.

In another, a male manager sexually harassed a male flight attendant during a flight by sitting "uncomfortably close" to him and making sexually suggestive comments.

That manager also allegedly watched the employee at a hotel gym during the flight layover.

The human rights complaint says the issue was brought before Air Canada and was "stunningly dismissed" by the company. CUPE also claims other similar complaints to the airline were ignored.

Air Canada's new service style handbook for flight staff includes three pages of makeup tips for female employees. (Air Canada)

The union says it wants the ongoing harassment to stop and for Air Canada to end its new training program.

Air Canada says the program is important, because it has helped improve customer service on flights. The airline also says it takes all harassment and discrimination claims seriously.

"[We] have established processes in place to deal with any such complaints and to act upon them," spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email to CBC News.

Allegations against WestJet

The allegations come at a time when flight attendants are speaking out about an industry they claim is rife with harassment.

Former WestJet flight attendant, Mandalena Lewis alleges she was sexually assaulted by a WestJet pilot in 2010.

In 2016, she filed a proposed class action lawsuit, claiming WestJet has failed to create a safe work environment for female flight attendants.

WestJet has said it won't comment while the matter is before the courts. When Lewis first went public with her allegations, the airline said it followed proper procedure in her case.

Mandalena Lewis, a former WestJet flight attendant, is suing the airline, alleging it did not properly investigate her sexual assault allegation against a pilot. (Ioanna Roumeliotis/CBC)

Meanwhile, in the U.S. last week, the head of the union representing 50,000 flight attendants testified before Congress, claiming flight attendants are ongoing victims of sexual harassment and assault.

"Even today, we are called pet names, patted on the rear… and subjected to incidents not fit for print," testified Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, in a written statement.  

"We call on the industry to take this issue seriously."

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca