‘Spitting, kicking and hair-pulling’: Female domestic workers in Qatar face widespread abuse

Maya Oppenheim
·4-min read
Researchers at the leading human rights organisation said domestic workers have their passports confiscated by employers which makes it very difficult to flee the abuse (David Harding)
Researchers at the leading human rights organisation said domestic workers have their passports confiscated by employers which makes it very difficult to flee the abuse (David Harding)

Female domestic workers in Qatar are being subjected to extreme levels of abuse as they are forced to work more than 18 hours a day, a new report has found.

Workers described how abusive employers belittled them by pulling their hair and spitting on them, as well as instances of being beaten, kicked and punched, Amnesty International claims, which added they get little or no protection from authorities in the football World Cup 2022 host country.

The report noted that domestic workers have their passports confiscated by their employers, making it very difficult to flee the abuse – adding that women have been driven to “breaking point” by being overworked with no time to rest while suffering abusive and degrading misconduct.

“Madam will say ‘[you are] a monster, I will cut your tongue’. I am scared. She will tell me ‘I will kill you’, always bad words. I am only a [maid], and I can’t do anything,” Emily*, a domestic worker, said.

Joy*, another employee, added: “Madam started shouting at all [the maids] … she started spitting on us and slapped me again … Before this incident she also kicked me on my back.”

Fifteen women said they faced physical abuse at the hands of their employer or employer’s family, out of a total of 105 interviews with women who worked as live-in domestic staff.

Of those interviewed, 90 out of the 105 said they routinely worked more than 14 hours each day, while half worked more than 18 hours per day, almost double the hours their contracts stipulated.

Many of the women said they were never given a single day off during their employment, and 89 of the interviewees said they regularly worked seven days a week. A large majority – 87 – had their passports illegally seized by their employer.

Five of the 105 said they had been sexually abused, ranging from harassment to fondling and rape. One woman who said she had been sexually attacked went to the police only to be accused of making up stories, reported Amnesty.

Steve Cockburn, head of economic and social justice at Amnesty International, said: "The overall picture is of a system which continues to allow employers to treat domestic workers not as human beings but as possessions.

“Despite efforts to reform labour laws, Qatar is still failing the most vulnerable women in the country.”

Some women said their employers were not paying them properly, while others said they were not given enough food and were forced to sleep in cramped rooms on the floor with no air conditioning.

Employers seek revenge on workers who leave their jobs and can charge them with “absconding” or other offences.

There are 173,000 migrant domestic workers in Qatar, predominantly from Asia. Domestic workers, like others in the country, are blocked from setting up trade unions.

The claims of mistreatment are the latest against the Gulf state, which has routinely been criticised for its shocking labour practices ever since it was surprisingly awarded the World Cup 10 years ago.

The country has come under intense international pressure ever since to improve working practices as claims that many workers - largely drawn from countries including India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines - have lost their lives helping build the infrastructure for football’s biggest tournament.

Domestic workers are largely seen as forgotten victims, as much of the focus of the criticism has been on the treatment of World Cup labourers.

Despite recent reforms in areas such as the introduction of a permanent minimum wage for migrant workers, who make up almost 90 per cent of the country’s 2.7 million population, many are still being let down, claim Amnesty.

In January, Qatar announced most migrant workers previously blocked from leaving the country without getting their employer’s consent will no longer need an exit permit.

A Domestic Workers Law, introduced in 2017, should protect staff in areas such as a limit on working hours, mandatory daily breaks, days off and paid holidays. Groups such as Amnesty though have long complained that well-meaning labour laws have not been properly enforced.

In response to the report, Qatar said it was willing to work with Amnesty to investigate claims in the report and ensure “all guilty parties are held to account”.

“If proven to be true, the allegations made by the individuals interviewed… constitute serious violations of Qatari law and must be dealt with accordingly,” said a statement from the government communications office.

*Joy and Emily’s names have been changed to protect their identities

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