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[Amnesty Report] Qatar fails to protect its domestic workers – the victims of physical, emotional and mental abuse, often unpaid and working in inhuman conditions

With no legal protection of their labour rights, domestic workers in Qatar continue to face severe exploitation and violence at the hands of their employers, Amnesty International says in its latest report on human rights violations in Qatar.

While FIFA 2022-driven international attention shines the light on exploitation of construction workers, there’s fear that domestic workers who are not covered by the labour law might receive no reprieve. The report – titled ‘My sleep is my break: Exploitation of domestic workers in Qatar’ – covers the experiences of just 52 domestic workers, but their tales are sordid. As per the 2010 census close to 85,000 low-income female migrants are employed as domestic servants in Qatar, all of whom fall outside of the purview of the labour law, and receive little by way of legal protection.

“The complete absence of protections for domestic workers’ labour rights, and the fact that they are isolated in employers’ homes, leaves them exposed to abuse to an even greater extent,” says Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Global Issues Director.

“Promises by the government to protect domestic workers’ labour rights have so far not amounted to anything. Qatar must stop dragging its feet over this and guarantee domestic workers legal protection for basic rights immediately.”

A draft law on domestic workers was submitted to the Qatari cabinet in September last, but that has seen no progress either.

The much touted draft model contract, offered as a solution by regional governments, was adopted by the GCC in January 2013. According to this contract, workers would be granted a weekly day-off, and their salaries would be paid by bank transfer.

However, there has been no further development, and this is not likely to be a priority given the current diplomatic row.

Speaking to JustHere, Amnesty International’s researcher on migrants’ rights in the Gulf, James Lynch says: “It is not entirely clear why progress on the GCC common contract for domestic workers has slowed. Diplomatic disputes between some of the Gulf states are probably unlikely to have helped. In any case, the key point for us is that for domestic workers, contracts – even if standardised across the region – are not enough on their own. Just like other workers domestic workers should be entitled to minimum working standards set out in law, and specific means to enforce those through grievance or judicial procedures.”

The Amnesty report highlights the “double discrimination” that these women face due to their gender and economic class.

The 52 women interviewed were in the employ of both Qatari and expatriate residents, including Asians, Arabs and Europeans.

Figures
  • According to 2010 Qatar census, out of the 132,401 foreign nationals, 84,164 women were hired as domestic help.
  • A Supreme Council of Family Affairs survey in 2011 revealed that out of 542 “typical” Qatari families, 478 employed a total of 885 women. This averages to less than two per household. Meanwhile, 71 families employed a total of 119 male domestic workers.
  • In January 2014, there were approximately 30,000 women from the Philippines working as domestic workers.
  • In 2013, there were approximately 20,000 Indonesian domestic workers in Qatar.
  • In March 2013, about 100 Nepalese domestic workers were officially registered with the embassy.

Here’s a summary of the major issues the report touches upon.

“Agents encourage domestic workers who are unhappy with the contract to “run away” immediately after the end of the three-month probation period, as it would allow agents to charge employers full recruitment fees to get a new maid.”
False contracts
Action point

As a measure to prevent contract substitution, the Ministry of Labour will soon be implementing a programme for electronic connection with labour-exporting countries to avoid any discrepancies regarding the contract signed by workers back home from that signed in Qatar. However, there is no clear indication if the system encompasses contracts of domestic workers as well.

Exploitation of domestic workers often begins as soon as they land in Qatar. Women have their passports taken by recruitment agencies directly from immigration officials at Doha Airport, which are handed to their employers. This was the “last time” they had possession of their passports before their eventual departure. Some even had their mobile phones confiscated.

Another malpractice prevalent here is “contract substitution” where a worker’s original contract is replaced by a new, “usually less advantageous” contract (sometimes only in Arabic), upon arrival. A similar case was reported by Al Million taxi drivers, read the full story here.

This form of deception often results in anxiety among workers. In March 2013, Hamad Hospital’s Psychiatric Unit reported “anxiety or depression caused be deception about work was the number one cause of admission to the unit”. Every year, about 30 women employed as domestic workers were admitted to the unit, and majorly for “attempted suicides”.

Domestic workers have complained that, “recruiters did not respond positively when asked for help”. In fact, agents often encourage domestic workers who are unhappy with the contract to “run away” immediately after the end of the three-month probation period, as it would allow agents to charge employers full recruitment fees to get a new maid.

Exclusion from Labour Law

What worsens the situation of domestic workers in Qatar is that they do not enjoy the protection of Qatar’s Labour Law. Drivers, home nurses, cooks, gardeners and similar workers receive no legal protection for the labour rights which makes it impossible for them to lodge complaints against their employers in the event of abuse or breach of contract. Nor do they have any say regarding the number of working hours, weekly-offs, annual leave, accommodation or payment.

“Every year, about 30 women employed as domestic workers were admitted to the unit, and majorly for ‘attempted suicides’.”

 

6 key facts on status of domestic workers

1. Every migrant worker in Qatar must have a “sponsor”, who must also be his or her employer. While many workers are sponsored by a registered company, domestic workers are usually sponsored by an individual, such as a member of the family in whose house they are working.

2. Sponsors are expected to provide their employees with housing in Qatar. For domestic workers, this usually means being housed in the same home or compound as their employer.

3. If workers leave their sponsor without permission to work for someone else or simply to stop working for them, they are considered to have “absconded”, a criminal offence. Their sponsors are required to report them to the Search and Follow-up Department of the Ministry of Interior, which polices the Sponsorship Law. Workers who “abscond” are likely to face detention and deportation.

4. Sponsors are required by law to return their employees’ passports to them after completing residence procedures. In reality, many domestic workers do not have their passports returned to them and they are held by their employer for the duration of their employment in Qatar.

5. Domestic workers and some other categories of workers are excluded from the terms of the Labour Law, meaning that under Qatari law there are no limits on their working hours, and they cannot complain to the Ministry of Labour in the event that their rights are being breached.

6. Under Qatari law, rape, physical assault, forced labour and human trafficking are illegal and carry prison sentences of varying lengths. However, Qatari law does not specifically criminalise domestic violence.

Physical and sexual abuse

In November 2012, the Qatar Foundation for the Protection of Women and Children reported a 54% rise between 2011 and 2012 in reports of violence against women. About 86% of complaints were related to physical assault, 6% to sexual violence and 3% to mental torture. These numbers however are not specific of domestic workers in Qatar, they only state the incidence of domestic violence in the country.

Meanwhile, the Qatar Foundation for Combating Human Trafficking states that it received 52 cases of serious abuse of women in 2012, 22 were that of physical abuse while 11 were of sexual abuse. Of these, 12 women were categorised as victims of forced labour.

Currently, there is no law in Qatar that criminalises domestic violence. Despite the presence of institutions that provide support to victims of abuse, there is lack of coordination between them and governmental organisations to address any such issues.

Moreover, victims of sexual abuse often fail to complain to authorities for fear of being charged with “illicit relations”. In March 2013, around half of the 75 women in detention were held on charges related to “illicit relations” or “love crimes”.

Forced Labour and Human trafficking

In 2011, Qatar passed a law on Human Trafficking, thereby making it a criminal offence. The law defines the crime as follows:

“Shall be considered committing the crime of trafficking in persons anybody who used, in any form, or transported or extradite, or harboured him or received or a natural person, both within the country or across its national borders, whether by use of force or violence or threat, or by abduction, fraud, or deception, or abuse of power, or the exploitation of vulnerability or need, or a promise of giving or receiving of payments or benefits for somebody in exchange for his consent on trafficking another person over whom he has authority.”

The law also exempts victims from the penalties under the Sponsorship Law. As a result, victims are allowed to leave employers without the fear of being arrested or deported for “absconding”.

“Qatar Foundation for the Protection of Women and Children reported a 54% rise between 2011 and 2012in reports of violence against women. About 86% of complaints were related to physical assault, 6% to sexual violence and 3% to mental torture.”

 

Even then, in 2012, the Qatar Foundation for Combating Human Trafficking registered 58 complaints from domestic workers and 40 women were accommodated in the shelter. In 2013, the organisation received 200-300 phone calls a month from domestic workers or their relatives.

Key Recommendations to the Government of Qatar

  • Repeal or amend Article 3 of the Labour Law to ensure that all workers – including domestic workers and other excluded categories – have their labour rights protected by law, equally.
  • Remove the requirement in the Sponsorship Law for foreign nationals to obtain the permission of their current employer before moving jobs or leaving the country.
  • Assess recruitment agencies in Qatar for their compliance with international human rights standards, publish these assessments, and cancel the recruitment licences of agencies who do not comply.
  • Provide a residence permit for trafficked persons wishing to pursue compensation from the perpetrators.
  • Decriminalise “absconding”, never detain individuals for the sole purpose of having “run away” from their employer, and always explore alternatives to detention.
  • Permit those who file complaints to return to their home countries during court cases or to work for new sponsors through the duration of their cases;
  • Make it mandatory for all police officers and deportation centre officials to undergo training to identify and assist victims of domestic violence, including domestic workers.
  • Ensure that legislation regarding rape states that medical and forensic evidence are collected in line with international guidelines and are not given disproportionate weight over other evidence, such as the victim’s testimony, in order to convict a perpetrator.
  • Stop the practice of detaining women with their children on charges of “illicit relations”.
  • Take special measures, including awareness-raising through the media, and educational campaigns to counter stereotypical attitudes towards women migrant domestic workers.

You can read the entire report here.

Download (PDF, 863KB)

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