Just a couple of weeks ago, the civil case filed against Malaysia Airlines Berhad by ex-MH Inflight Supervisor Ina Meliesa Hassim over wrongful termination by the national carrier, saw the Industrial Court rule in favour of the company – over a mere 0.7kg of body weight.
Ina Meliesa Hassim was a flight attendant for Malaysia Airlines for 25 years before being deemed “excess baggage” (by a margin of just 700 grams) and unceremoniously terminated by the company in which she had invested her whole professional career, and not because of anything relating to her actual job performance.
Let’s take a look at the details of this particular case:
In September 2017, Ina Meliesa Hassim filed a complaint against Malaysia Airlines Berhad for wrongful dismissal under Section 20(3) of the Industrial Relations Act 1967. In her 25 years of being employed as a flight attendant, 23 of them were spent under the company’s previous legal entity, Malaysia Airlines System.
An Inflight Supervisor at the time of her dismissal, Ina Meliesa was accused of failing to comply with the airlines rather questionable weight requirement for all cabin crew. The national carrier had issued a circular in their grooming manual in 2015 that basically forced thousands of cabin crew to adhere to pre-determined (and unrealistic) Body Mass Index (BMI) requirements in order to carry out their professional duties.
Prior to her termination, Ina Meliesa was placed under the company’s weight management program for 18 months, which dictated that her maximum weight should not go over 61kgs – a weight that supposedly tallies with her height of 160cm. Scientists and medical researchers have long debunked the “proposed accuracy” of BMI calculations which is “based on the height and weight of a person, is an inaccurate measure of body fat content and does not take into account muscle mass, bone density, overall body composition, and racial and sex differences.”
People also tend to age differently and cannot be subjected to a physical requirement of keeping within the same weight range in a span of 25 years. Which brings us to the following conundrum of Malaysia Airlines Berhad having a history of terminating long-serving cabin crew over supposed weight issues as reported in the New Straits Times. In the report, most the targeted crew were over 50 years of age. Although the Malaysian Employment Act disallows such biased and discriminatory terminations, MAB have been getting away with it with hardly any legal repercussions as is evident in Ina Meliesa’s case.
How Have Workers’ Unions Responded?
Calling Ina Melisa’s termination “erroneously inhumane,” the National Union of Flight Attendants Malaysia (Nufam) is calling for justice according to their statement in Free Malaysia Today. They also stated:
“We know the recent case may be a victory lap for MAB (Malaysia Airlines Berhad) and some airlines who also wish to get rid of their ‘old and slow’ employees, but that will not stop Nufam from continuing to condemn such mistreatment against cabin crew employees.”
The Women’s Aid Organisation has also gone on record to condemn Ina’s termination as an act of discrimination, and have asked MAB to provide solid proof of their weight criteria being an “indispensable requirement of the job.” It has not been observed if MAB’s flight crew are subjected to the same grooming expectations of their cabin crew.
MAB’s press statement in response to Ina’s civil case stated their weight management program was implemented as an effort “to maintain its image as a premium airline.” As reported in The Edge Markets, MAB’s grooming circular also states:
“As cabin crew, apart from maintaining the appearance as set by the company, you are also responsible to ensure the safety of our passengers while in flights. Being front liners in uniform, cabin crew cast an unforgettable image in the minds of our valued guests.
It is for this reason that the company considers the feedback received from our customers on the image of crew and inevitably even the appearance of cabin crew has been included as one of the attributes in the passenger flight experience survey and which is being tracked monthly.
…With this policy in place, the airline will see healthier cabin crew who will project an image befitting that of the world’s best cabin staff as well as for ensuring the passengers’ safety when the necessity arises,”
It’s interesting that the company places such untenable expectations on a certain “image” that’s also supposed to function as a safety garment in the unlikely incident of an inflight emergency. Although Malaysia Airlines’ iconic kebaya has been listed as one of the most beautiful airline uniforms in the world, holding it to an international safety standard for the nature of the job is rather questionable.
The duties of airline cabin crew are physically demanding, and yet the design of the kebaya was always meant to appear attractive, rather than function as safety-friendly. Female cabin crew have long been treated as a commodity in the aviation industry, and more so in Asia where the stereotypical trope of petite, subservient, docile, and hardworking Asian women being ever so ready to serve you at 36,000 ft in the sky, all while looking picture-perfect in an appealing uniform, is kept alive.
Clearly, Malaysia Airlines cabin crew who have been with the company for a couple of decades are seemingly deemed “past their prime” and are therefore subjected to discriminatory dismissals under the guise of “grooming policies.” It’s disgraceful that appearances trump professional and excellent interpersonal skills that are actual job requirements of cabin crew.
It’s time aviation as a whole moved past their sexist, ageist, and sizeist regulations and treat their staff with more respect and acknowledgment.
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