On April 25, the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ (CUPE) Airline Division is holding a national day of action to put pressure on airlines and the federal government to end unpaid work in the sector. Workers will be “hitting the pavement” at airports in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver to tell the bosses and politicians to pay them for hours worked while not in flight.

According to CUPE, Canadian flight attendants work an average of 35 hours per month for free — time spent performing pre-boarding work, tending to passengers when planes are delayed and ensuring safe travel before flights depart. The “unpaid work won’t fly” campaign seeks to raise awareness about what the union calls the “widespread abuse of unpaid work” endured by its roughly 18,500 members. CUPE represents flight attendants at all major airlines, including Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing and Flair, among others.

“Much of the Canadian public has no idea that when flight attendants are doing their pre-flight safety checks, or assisting passengers with boarding, or helping passengers when their plane is delayed at the gate after a long journey, that the flight attendant isn’t even being paid,” said Wesley Lesosky, a flight attendant with CUPE 4094 and president of CUPE’s Airline Division in a union press release.

Between December 2022 and January 2023, CUPE surveyed its airline members to gauge the prevalence of unpaid work in the sector. More than half of union members participated in the survey and the results were startling. Flight attendants reported performing nearly an extra week worth of uncompensated overtime every month. Nearly 99 per cent of surveyed flight attendants reported not being paid while assisting passengers disembarking planes, while 98 per cent said they didn’t get paid when planes are held at the gate. Additionally, three-quarters of members reported that they were only paid partial wages when taking mandatory training, even though airlines and the government require such training upgrades several times per year.

Outside of various customer care-related tasks in airports, flight attendants aren’t paid for the time they spend in pre-boarding and processing through security themselves, nor for time spent doing their pre-flight preparation and safety checks. In other words, delays at security gates, whether caused by staffing shortages or other issues, can translate into flight attendants spending large amounts of time “at work” without being compensated.

As CUPE puts it: “Some of these duties are paid, but many are paid at or below the federal minimum wage, and even more are not paid at all, depending on which airline you work for. Our message is simple: if a flight attendant is at work, in uniform, performing work duties – they should be getting paid!”

Compounding these issues, flight attendants, like others who perform customer service tasks, are also forced to deal with disgruntled passengers when flights are delayed or cancelled. These workers consequently often find themselves doing unpaid work managing the effects of service disruptions or delays. In short, understaffing and underinvestment have ripple effects, with those performing direct customer service bearing the brunt of the consequences and increased workloads. Understaffed airports wind up being incubators of unpaid work. As airports resumed operations post-COVID-19, flight attendants and other airport staff were left to manage the fallout of overbooking and other service interruptions.

Historically, flight attendants have overwhelmingly been women, which has shaped the issues they face on the job. According to assistant professor of labour studies at the University of Manitoba Julia Smith, the feminized nature of flight attendants’ work has often ‘justified’ its devaluation. Smith, along with labour historian Joan Sangster, has examined the history of flight attendant labour and its gendered regulation.

As Smith put it to me: “Although the demographics of the flight attendant workforce has changed over the years, the devaluation of their work has not. Despite the popular view of flight attendants as ‘waitresses in the sky,’ their primary responsibility has always been passenger safety. When we fly on a plane, we rely on flight attendants for a range of services. They assist us with boarding and deplaning, teach us about safety protocols, and provide us with food and beverages. They also calm anxious flyers, deal with unruly passengers and respond to medical situations. In the event of an emergency, flight attendants ensure passengers exit the plane safely. Flight attendants do all this and more. Yet like many other feminized service jobs, flight attendant work is often devalued by employers, customers and governments.”

Issues related to pay and working time can be especially thorny in the airline industry, even for those with union representation. The industry has been historically resistant to strict hours of work regulations. Airlines want to maintain their “flexibility” to alter workers’ schedules as they please, or as changes in service conditions dictate. For example, when the federal government proposed changes to the Canada Labour Code to provide all federally regulated workers with greater certainty around scheduling, additional time off between shifts, 24 hours for notice of a shift change and guaranteed breaks during working hours, airlines opposed most of these changes and requested special exemptions for their industry, which were largely granted.

According to CUPE, Air Canada has “stepped up” and made some changes to address the issue of uncompensated work, but most others have not. With its unpaid work campaign and national day of action, the union hopes to pressure the other airlines to follow suit.  

It’s not only among flight attendants that the industry is facing labour unrest, however. This past week, pilots at WestJet voted 93 per cent in favour of strike action, with less than a week before the end of government-appointed mediation. As the pilots’ association contends, the airline needs to bring its pay and working conditions up to the industry standard to fix ongoing recruitment and retention problems. “WestJet, despite repeatedly touting its growth strategy, is hemorrhaging around 30 pilots per month and is on track to lose up to 20 percent of its experienced pilot work force within the next year,” the Air Line Pilots Association said in a statement following the strike vote.  

The situation of airline pilots is another case of employers claiming to face a labour shortage as workers in the industry are burning out and demanding better pay, working conditions, and job security in order to stay. WestJet pilots will be in a legal strike position as of May 13, but remain willing to bargain in the intervening time. If no deal is reached, they can give their 72-hour strike notice and be on the picket line May 16, just ahead of the holiday weekend.

As in so many other sectors of our post-pandemic economy, workers in the airline industry are being squeezed while corporations who enjoyed outsized pandemic-related government handouts restore their profits, and then some. CUPE’s national day of action is a chance to highlight one mechanism through which this is taking place: the proliferation of unpaid work. It’s time to end this “widespread abuse” now.