They made us forget our own well-being

Between March and June 2020, Jean-Jacques Rousseau fellow Pınar Öğünç made 35 interviews with people from Turkey, mainly workers, to write about structural problems, inequalities of their sector which became more visible in these harsh times. Five of them were translated to make them available to an international non-Turkish speaking readership.

A flight stewardess speaks about the most difficult few weeks of her life: The pandemic is present, there are no precautions, and they are still flying. The only precaution that is allowed is the use of transparent gloves for kneading dough, as retaining integrity of the uniform is prioritized. The senior flight stewardess complains about how the principle of »safety first« remains only a written axiom and serving the travelers has become the main goal. This crisis has triggered a new round of questions for this group of workers, already familiar with the risk of being infected by a virus. The flight stewardess decided to state the name of her employer for this very reason.

I am a chief flight attendant and I have been with the same company for a decade. The precautions against the pandemic arrived too late on a global scale and in Turkey. Here, no action was taken despite witnessing what had happened in Italy. We had flights back then, we were very scared. I don’t know how to even tell you about these days… The period of time between the end of February to the middle of March was nightmarish. We were not even allowed to wear gloves until much later. Why? Because we had to preserve the integrity of our uniforms! When we wanted to wear masks, the administrator could comment that the passengers would think we were sick. By the way, you know which gloves I’m referring to? The transparent gloves used to knead dough. Many people, including me, could not take this and we went on unpaid leave. When the flights to China and Iran were ceased, the company realized that this situation would cost them financially and stated that they would allow the employees to take unpaid leave.

»In reality, »safety first« has not been a priority for a while. The workload of the service, the capriciousness of the passengers, and the company’s favoring the passengers in the relationship between the flight attendants and the passengers have been severe.«

The biggest problem of people working in this sector is the psychological aspect, which goes unspoken. This already existed before the virus. This is not a fear of flying, someone who is afraid of flying could not do this job, but the subconscious is aware that they are thousands of feet up in the air and that they are taking a risk. The feeling of responsibility is a serious source of stress. When the virus is added to that, you begin another kind of questioning. I also had flights in the middle of March and I would ask myself what I was doing. Why am I taking this risk? Imagine the plane to be a small tube, you are in a small tube with a limited air ventilation alongside the passengers. I always wondered whether thousands have to die first. What is more important than life itself? On the other hand, the perceptions of the flight crew need to be 100% sharp – if you do your job with this anxiety, you would forget your primary task.

Stewardess, flight attendant, however you define it, we are laborers who work for the flight safety for the passengers and ourselves. There is a critical problem – this task remains as a written principle only. All the companies in the aviation business share the same problem. We start with »Safety first« and the intensity of the side tasks push this priority to the side. In reality, »safety first« has not been a priority for a while. The workload of the service, the capriciousness of the passengers, and the company’s favoring the passengers in the relationship between the flight attendants and the passengers have been severe. In short flights to destinations such as Belgrade and Milan, you are responsible for so much that you might forget about safety. The competition between companies brought us to this point and this condition worsened rapidly over the last few years. We are of course good-humored with the passengers, but during a time of intense service, it is important to detect an abnormal situation in the cabin and do what is necessary. The chief flight attendants are most worried about reporting on the quality of the service to the airline companies. They put pressure on their teams accordingly. I look at it differently. Everything can be accounted for, but safety cannot be compromised.

On the other hand, flight attendants really enjoy their job. There are unique, pleasant sides to this job that are not comparable to other sectors. We remained in the job despite losing many rights, because flying and the overnight tasks, the lifestyle was preferable with all the positive elements. But with the virus, I questioned myself in a novel way. Should we fly no matter what? I said no, my priority is health, first it’s my health and then everything else. We reached this particular state of mind – they made us forget our own well-being.

I remember that at the time, there were flights coming back from umrah. Even the possibility of being on one of those flights gave me great anxiety. Your flights are determined the day before, I waited, fearful. Some of my friends were on those flights. On the one hand, you have an obligation. If the company has not canceled, this is your job, which is very very difficult. If the circumstances are as such even in a big company like mine, I can’t even imagine what happened in smaller companies. Actually, you know what, I didn’t want to refer to the name of my company, but now I want to say that I work for Turkish Airlines. Please do not take out this part, I want this to be known by the readers. The pandemic has started, people are dying, a decision has been made, your workers are going to bring back people from the umrah. Under such circumstances, what does it mean for Flight Attendants Commission to prioritize the integrity of the uniform? You can wear blue gloves, white gloves, pink gloves, so what. The gloves had to be transparent. What do you do that for? I’m sharing my problems here with you. Please take a look from the outside and tell me, for what? Before all flights were suspended, a few flights were organized to bring back citizens of Turkey who were abroad; only then could the whole crew wear overalls for protection. Our problem was not the virus, but that we did not trust the Flight Attendants Commission at Turkish Airlines.

»The biggest problem of people working in this sector is the psychological aspect, which goes unspoken. This already existed before the virus.«

The cargo flights never stopped; a few passenger flights are also used for cargo right now. Flight attendants are also on these flights to check on the front and back of the vessel for safety. People still stay in places overnight. And when you stay overnight, they do not provide all the meals for you. In order not to starve, people go out. These are cargo flights to many different points in the world, including Bishkek in Central Asia and Dakar in Africa. OK, there are no passengers, but you are staying in a different country. I might be on one of these flights when I run out of unpaid leave. To be honest, I might extend my unpaid leave for two months. Right now, I have given up my rights as an employee, but instead of suffering from these anxieties, I can just sit at home. Thankfully, I have my husband’s support. I have friends who are single, who are not supported by family and they will have to go back to work. This is the brutality of capitalism—people can only last a month without pay. There is a virus outside, yes, but inside, there is hunger.

What is going to happen in three months? I don’t know. It’s going to go where it goes. We are going to get used to this virus. My questioning will not be over, but it will be lessened and of course I will go back to work one day. Nothing will remain the same in the sector. People will continue their own quarantine for a while. First they will have to forget their anxiety, change some of their habits. Flights will resume, but will there be passengers? People are also worried about being fired for this reason. We are in one of the hardest hit sectors; tens of thousands of workers are worried about being fired if the sector is not able to pull itself back together. If getting things back to normal takes two-three years, workers might lose their jobs. By accepting to go on unpaid leave, we protected ourselves but also relieved the company of the financial baggage. We would like our livelihood to be sustained and we will support the company if needs be. But we do not agree with some of the decisions that the administrators have made. There are serious cases of exploitation and even under these circumstances, they are trying to figure out how much more they can exploit the workers.

We were close to viruses before COVID-19. At one point, there was Ebola, there was Zika. We lost a friend who contracted malaria in Africa and who could not be identified here because we don’t have malaria. We are all aware of this risk. You are going to say that we should be mentally prepared. You know what, it doesn’t work out that way. There has never been something like this, COVID-19 is everywhere.

The day we spoke, the number of cases was 129,491 and the number of deaths was 3520.

*The unforeseeable state of emergency launched by a virus with a global reach, has made visible the already-existing inequalities of capitalism, deepening the gaps; many say that nothing can remain the same after this. Is that true? Why would everything not remain the same? While this order of things, which owes its existence to colonialism, sexist divisions of labor and precisely that deep inequity, has our souls and bodies enveloped, just like this ominous virus – is it possible to recover from it? Women, men, workers, clerks, the unemployed, the white-collar workers, the blue-collar workers, those claim that the era of »collars« is over, freelancers, those working from home, those still working, those being forced to work, those in quarantine, those who cannot see their future, and those who are fatigued by what they see in their future. Why did we begin this long series of articles? Because we need to hear each other’s voices, to hear about each other’s troubles and to look for our remedies through and within the remedies of others.


Translation by Merve Unsal