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Not all overseas jobs that glitter are gold

When Qatar Airways recruits flight attendants in Bangkok, thousands of young men and women make their way to whichever hotel ballroom has been rented for a gruelling application process. Like several other major international airlines, notably from the Middle East, Qatar views Thailand as a strong recruiting ground: enthusiasm from young Thais is so strong for the high-paying and high-flying job that a small industry is devoted to arming candidates with the language skills, and hair and make-up, necessary to make a strong impression.

But the thousands of would-be flight attendants might now be thinking twice about applying for Qatar. One of the airline’s senior vice-presidents last week sent out a sensational email to the entire staff shaming a long-serving employee, a nine-year veteran who had risen to the senior rank of cabin service director. Her crime, such as it was, was to get drunk on her day off, to the point where she passed out in front of her accommodation.

"She was dropped off at the entrance of her building and left there sleeping until other crew members found her and carried her up to her apartment," Rossen Dimitrov, the vice-president of "customer experience", wrote to thousands of employees. "I am so ashamed and disturbed by this behaviour displayed by a tenured member of our team, an adult who has been with the company for over nine years. How can we change rules when we do not behave as mature individuals. I am very disappointed."

The email, accompanied by a photograph, was far more shameful and disturbing than the employee’s indiscretion. The woman’s embarrassment could and should have been limited to facing her friends and flatmates the following day; her behaviour had nothing to do with her duties and need not have reflected badly on the company at all. On the other hand, the email was a dramatic over-reaction that caused a sensation, first among the airline’s staff and before long in the media — everywhere from the Daily Mail to Matichon online. Mr Dimitrov managed to embarrass himself more than anyone else.

Conflicting reports and rumours about whether the woman in question is Thai or Filipina are immaterial — she has been publicly humiliated enough and it could have happened to anyone. The worry for the hundreds, if not thousands, of Thai staff working for the airline is whether they will be subjected to similar embarrassment should they make such mistakes.

The airline naturally came to Mr Dimitrov’s defence, saying the email was sent to remind staff about conservative Qatar’s social customs. "In Doha, the consumption of alcohol is not permitted for nationals and, although drinking is permitted for foreigners, being seen to be drunk would be considered highly disrespectful — it would have negative implications for both the individual and those associated with them," a spokesperson said.

This ignores the worst aspect of the email, which was the way the incident was used to justify the control over employees’ lives that extends to what time they return home, who can visit them and whether they can enjoy a drink on their days off. The airline has already caused controversy over its apparent preference for female staff to be single, with marriage and pregnancy considered career-enders. After the Washington Post reported that women had to sign a contract promising not to get married for five years, the airline denied having sexist policies.

Still, anyone joining the airline should be aware that under Qatari law a woman can be jailed for being pregnant out of wedlock and men for being homosexual. Employees should go into the job with their eyes open. The schools in Bangkok that train prospective flight attendants in English and service skills should also give advice on the cultural clashes they will likely encounter.

Flight attendants represent only a fraction of the Thais working abroad. According to recent statistics from the labour and foreign affairs ministries, about 2.4 million people are working internationally.

This is thought to be an underestimate as it does not take seasonal migration for short-term employment into account. A National Research Council of Thailand report from 2012 says stronger Asian economies and the Middle East were attractive for employment purposes, and 56% were aged between 26 and 35. The paper found most are men with limited education, with Taiwan, Singapore and Israel the top destinations.

Many of these workers face harsher labour conditions than flight attendants, and for less financial reward. Working for an airline will still be considered among the more glamorous options, even though last week some of that glamour was tainted.