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'My Sleep is My Break': Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Qatar

[Logo of Amnesty International. Image from] [Logo of Amnesty International. Image from]

[The following report was published by Amnesty International on  22 April 2014]

"My Sleep is My Break": Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Qatar

Introduction and Overview

"No day-off and no mobile if you don't want to give. It is as you like madam, the same with  working hours, it is as you like, no problem about hours." 

-- A representative of a popular Doha recruitment agency, answering questions about how domestic workers should be treated by their  employer, March 2013

"Lola and her distant children were dependent on our family’s good graces to pay her  regularly, treat her fairly and honor our commitments in her contract with us. Yet we could  have just as easily denied her basic human and labor rights—and no one would have known,  or acted to stop us if they had." 

-- Former employer of a migrant domestic worker in Qatar, December 2013

“We have to protect families, and when we say family we don’t mean Qataris, we mean all  members of the family.” 

-- Senior official, Supreme Council of Family Affairs, to Amnesty International, March 2013


'Victoria' had not been particularly unhappy with her job until it came to the December  holidays. 

She had arrived in Qatar in August 2012 from her home in the Philippines to work for an  expatriate family in their Doha home, cleaning and looking after their children. Her hours  were very long, starting at 05:00 every morning and working until about 20:00 in the  evening, sometimes later. But, she told Amnesty International, she had a day off work every  Friday, and she always got her monthly salary of 1,000 riyals [US$275] a month. 

However, in December 2012, Victoria's workload increased to extreme levels. Twelve family  relatives from Australia came to visit for the month, and she had to work flat-out to serve the  house, with virtually no rest and no days off. Four of the group stayed for a further month and  a half. When they left, she asked her employers to increase her wages for this period, to  reflect the additional work she had done. Their response, according to Victoria, was to make  her working conditions worse. For a month, she was not allowed out of the house, had no  days off and was not allowed to speak to her friends. Her salary was docked. 

"Because I answered back I was punished. They removed 100 riyals [US$27.50] from my  monthly salary. Now I am only allowed a day-off twice a month. I have said to her, 'if you don't want me, send me back [home].'... I am supposed to have a holiday after I have worked  for one year but I don't know if they will let me yet."

Working in a family home in a foreign country is, for millions of men and women around the  world, a potentially attractive opportunity to find work, sometimes at higher salaries than they  can earn at home. 

But it is not without risk. Because migrant domestic workers are often isolated in the home  and heavily dependent on their employer, they are at particular risk of exploitation and abuse.  Women in such roles are additionally more exposed to abuses linked to their gender,  including gender-based violence.

Victoria's story is, unfortunately, by no means the most extreme case of abuse heard by  Amnesty International researchers investigating the situation of migrant women working as  domestic workers in Qatar. It is rather a case that illustrates how exploitation of domestic  workers in Qatar is at once part of a global phenomenon - an expatriate family can choose to  discipline their expatriate employee for simply seeking adequate compensation for a brutal  period of work - and is also very specific to Qatar's context. 

Like all migrant workers, domestic workers in Qatar are subject to the highly restrictive kafala  or sponsorship system, which gives their employer excessive control over them, including the  power to deny them the right to leave the country or change jobs. Like all other foreign  workers, they are barred from forming or joining trade unions. 

In addition, domestic workers cannot challenge their employers if their labour rights are  abused, because Qatar's laws specifically prevent them from doing so. Victoria could not take  her employers to the authorities for docking her wages or asking her to work such extreme  hours. It is probable that they were well-aware of this fact. 

The system thus conspires on three levels to leave migrant domestic workers in Qatar open to  exploitation and abuse: their isolation in the home; the excessive powers of their employers;  and a legal system that is not designed to help them. 

As a result, domestic workers are susceptible to serious abuses if they are recruited into the  homes of families or individuals who seek to take advantage of this permissive environment.  The abuses can be extreme. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Deception about what their working conditions will be when they start work, particularly salary; 
  • Extreme working hours and lack of rest days, including seven-day, 100-hour working  weeks; 
  • Severe restrictions on freedom of movement and communication, including not being  able to leave the house or make mobile phone calls; 
  • Verbal harassment and dehumanising treatment; and 
  • Physical and sexual violence.

Some domestic workers interviewed by Amnesty International in Qatar are victims of forced  labour and human trafficking; recruited with false promises of good salaries and decent  working hours, compelled to work for employers who would not let them leave and facing – in  several cases – the threat of physical abuse or lost wages if they challenged the employer.

Qatari officials have stressed to Amnesty International that migrant domestic workers are  treated with respect, like "members of the family", by their employers. In a response to allegations of abuse against domestic workers made by the Guardian newspaper in February  2014, the government stated that the "vast majority" of domestic workers "work amicably,  save money and send this home to improve the economic situation of their families and  communities in their home countries".

Amnesty International has interviewed women who said their employers respected their  rights. The organization does not claim that all domestic workers in Qatar are poorly treated  or that all employers are abusers. Researchers met employers who were angered by cases of  abuse and who had attempted to assist domestic workers in other households who were in  distress. Nevertheless, the organization does not accept government claims that abuses  against domestic workers in Qatar represent exceptional or isolated cases. This assessment is  made on three main grounds. 

Firstly, Amnesty International's interviews with migrant domestic workers demonstrate  significant consistencies in the types of abuses experienced. These accounts are consistent  with assessments made by others, including government officials, about the main reasons  that domestic workers leave their employers, described in Qatar as "running away". 

  • "Why do women run away? Often they’re not paid their salary. Or they’re working all the  time. They have too much work, like five children to take care of. Ramadan is the worst time  of year; more people run away then, because there’s so much work": Doha resident who  assists domestic workers in distress, March 2013.
  • "A large number of migrant women who are working as domestic workers 'run away' due  to difficult working conditions and abuse": UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of  migrants following visit to Qatar, November 2013.
  • “We have found during investigations with housemaids and drivers who escaped from  their sponsors, that maltreatment, domestic violence, over-work (in Ramadan) and no day-off  in the week are some of the major woes that prompt household hands to escape”: Senior  Ministry of Interior official, quoted in local newspaper, 2011.

Secondly, the numbers of domestic workers seeking assistance in connection with poor  working conditions are significant. The representative of one labour sending country’s  embassy in Qatar told Amnesty International that around 90 per cent of the approximately 50  labour complaints the embassy receives every week are from women working as domestic workers. The abuses reported to the embassy include “maltreatment, no rest, unpaid salaries, sexual harassment and rape”. In 2013 the Indonesian embassy told local media that  between three and five domestic workers sought shelter every day, with the main complaints being “long working hours, lack of days off, low salary or non-payment of salary". The  embassy briefly stopped endorsing new contracts for domestic workers to highlight the high  number of women making complaints of abuse and the pressure this was placing on the  embassy. The Qatar Foundation for Combating Human Trafficking, which is mandated to  provide assistance to victims of trafficking, stated in 2013 that it received between 200 and  300 calls a month from domestic workers or their relatives. 

Thirdly, while credible independent data regarding abuses against domestic workers in Qatar  is very scarce, Qatar's National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) has consistently stated  that domestic workers are the group of workers most at risk of being abused, in part because  of the systemic problems which leave domestic workers without legal protection for their  rights: "the rights of domestic workers remain an important challenge because they are the  group most exposed to transgressions, due to the lack of legislation to regulate their affairs  and employment relationships, and the fact that they are not subject to the labour law." It is widely accepted that globally migrant domestic workers are at a higher risk of abuse than  workers in other occupations.

Amnesty International's research has found that abusive employers of domestic workers may  come from a variety of different countries and regions, including Qatar, other countries in the  Middle East and North Africa, Europe, the Americas and Asia. The State of Qatar must take  action, both against employers who abuse domestic workers, as well as exploitative  recruitment agencies that place women in the homes of employers they may know to be  abusive and fail to take action when domestic workers seek their assistance. Those  responsible for abuse should be held accountable and prevented from recruiting or employing  domestic workers in future.

The government's efforts to combat fraudulent recruitment practices and human trafficking  must be done in close partnership with the governments of domestic workers' countries of  origin. Preventing the exploitation of migrant domestic workers is a responsibility shared  between countries of origin and countries of destination. In recent years, Amnesty  International has documented, in separate reports, the failings of the Indonesian and  Nepalese governments in protecting their nationals from exploitative recruiters before beginning their migration to work as domestic workers.

The Government of Qatar needs to do more than just take action against private sector  employers and recruiters, however. It must review and reform its own approach to the  employment and protection of domestic workers. When women leave their employers and  report abuse, they should expect the state to investigate and take action to hold accountable  those responsible. 

Too often, instead, domestic workers are treated as the offenders themselves, detained for  "absconding" or otherwise breaching the sponsorship law. In March 2013 over 90 per cent of the women detained by the authorities awaiting deportation were former domestic workers.  And when domestic workers report rape or sexual assault, they risk being charged, instead,  with consensual sex, under the charge of "illicit relations". 

In part, tackling the abuse of domestic workers requires the Qatari authorities to make bold  reforms which would improve the respect for the rights of all of Qatar's migrant workers. Amnesty International continues to call for the reform of the sponsorship system, to reduce the excessive powers of employers over their employees.

The government must also empower domestic workers to hold their employers and recruiters accountable if their rights  are abused, by giving them the legal protection for their rights which they are currently  denied by Qatar's Labour Law. As the international spotlight continues to focus on Qatar  ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it will be increasingly untenable for Qatar to maintain a  situation whereby domestic workers and some other low-income workers effectively have no  viable way of claiming their human rights. 

It is also essential that authorities must address what the Committee on the Elimination of  Discrimination against Women this year termed "the multiple forms of discrimination [that  migrant domestic workers in Qatar] experience based on their nationality and other  grounds." That includes but is not limited to tackling prejudices and negative attitudes  among employers, recruiters and state officials.

Amnesty International's research indicates that women working as domestic workers can face  a form of double discrimination, being both low-income migrant workers and women. Domestic workers are portrayed in a negative fashion in Qatar's media, fuelling stereotypical  attitudes about them. The government's proposed new strategy to combat domestic violence  appears to leave migrant domestic workers out of its considerations. This, combined with the  restrictions of the sponsorship system and domestic workers' isolation, means that domestic  workers face serious barriers seeking justice when they experience physical or sexual  violence; and discriminatory stereotypes mean that they can risk being prosecuted for "illicit  relations" if they do make a report.

Against such a backdrop, legislative and policy reforms can have only partial impact in improving the respect for domestic workers' rights. Amnesty International calls on the  Government of Qatar to lead the way in setting out a new approach to eliminate  discrimination against migrant domestic workers, in which respect for their rights is seen not  only as a legal obligation but also as a desirable societal goal. 

[Click here to read the full report]

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