Hiring a domestic worker is first a responsibility, then a convenience
Much has been said about migrant construction workers in Qatar. A lot less about domestic workers; and even then, the discussions have been narrow and limited to ‘maids’.
First, let’s define who a domestic worker is as per our laws; they are any employee deemed to work within a household which includes (but not limited to) cooks, nannies, drivers, maids and gardeners. Their sponsor or employer is an individual and not a company. It is also important to note that fishermen, and farmworkers are not included in the labour laws, and consequently suffer the same plight as domestic workers. Further, domestic workers earn 30% less than the average worker in Qatar.
Qatar’s constitution clearly states that all are equal before the law, and no one (be it nationals or migrants) is to be discriminated against. To that extent, the labour law affords protection to workers, and in principle ensures fair and ethical treatment.
Falling between the cracks in the system
However, tens of thousands are excluded from the labour law, resulting in many serious implications. For instance, they are not legally entitled to have a day off. The onus is on their employers to ensure they are being adequately taken care of, and their needs met. However, without legislations to protect them, what does “adequate” really mean? If one does not provide their domestic workers with a day off, it is unethical and inhumane. However, in the current scenario, it is not illegal. Similarly if domestic workers are unpaid for extended periods of time, the contract they sign takes precedence, and helps determine what contractual arrangement had been violated. Again, while the contract remains breached, the laws have not been broken.
The only guiding document that governs the relationship between employer and employee is the employment contract, which is not binding by law. (There is a draft common GCC contract that is still pending approval.)
Neither with the embassy nor at the time of applying for a work permit, is the employer/sponsor expected to submit a notarised contract. These contracts (which maybe co-signed with a manpower agency) are again not based on existing legislation and leads to a situation where there is no lawful means for an exploited domestic worker from claiming essential entitlements such as set working hours, timely wage payment, annual leave, medical treatment and travel costs.
Even if the employment contract between the domestic worker and the employer highlights all that is missing from the law, the process involved in seeking assistance is complex. The fact remains that if the contract is broken, the domestic worker is reliant on a court appointed lawyer or a private law firm to take up the case. Throughout this process, she most likely remains unpaid, and is unlikely to be residing in the house of the employer. These options, while hypothetically possible, are practically not feasible.
Like most issues to do with migrant workers, even in the case of domestic workers there is a propensity to blame all ills on the nationals, though the recent Amnesty report ‘My sleep is my break: Exploitation of domestic workers in Qatar’ clearly states exploitation happens across nationalities, be it an European, an Asian or a Qatari employer.
In a recent guest post for Doha News Raed Al Emadi (‘Not without my khadama’) had shared his perspective on the issues faced by domestic workers and their employers. Like he clearly points out, people tend to simplify a vastly complex matter, and do not appreciate the many nuances. It is true and unfortunate that many people do not differentiate between Qatar (the system) and Qataris. Having said that, there are elements of the article that I must contest, having worked in the field and on the processes concerning labour migration.
She is a victim too
Referring to the moment of the successful recruitment of a domestic worker into a household, “…you are confronted with a classic HR problem. The candidate is neither aware of the job description nor the functions it entails. The candidate also does not understand a word of English,” and so on.
The issues raised refer to the inconsistencies between the actual candidate who was hired, versus the qualifications they have claimed to have on their CVs. In which case the main argument of the article should ideally have been the recruitment process, which did not get the focus it deserved. The recruiters are the ones who have secured the candidate, and so are the ones responsible for ensuring a ‘match’. As per regulations in Qatar, within the first three months if either the domestic worker or the employer is unsatisfied with the conditions, the agency will ‘replace’ the individual with a new domestic worker at their own cost. After three months the recruitment agency absolves itself from the consequences of the employer-employee relationship.
Was she trafficked?
“The maid moved to Qatar to work for a company, not a house […] your employee, the maid, is irritated and disappointed. She therefore does not feel like exceeding your expectation. She does not feel like meeting them to begin with, and this is evident from the sloppy jobs here and there, the carelessness and lack of motivation…you would never go back to your own manager to say: I am too slow and I cannot meet the deadline, so why would she hold you accountable to this part of the contract?”
The fact remains that she has been tricked into a job she did not realise she was entering into! To use a stronger term, she has been trafficked, and under these circumstances it is human trafficking as per Qatar’s Anti-Human Trafficking Law of 2011. If my manager hired me for a specific job and then I did not meet those expectations, then I am clearly at fault. However, if I have been told that I will be a waitress in a five-star hotel, and upon arrival realise that I am going to be a maid, the circumstances are far from the dream I paid for and the contract I signed. The entities to blame here are clearing the recruitment agencies for not performing their due diligence in the hiring process. There is a need for agencies to restructure themselves to ensure that recruitment is conducted in an ethical fashion.
Those looking to hiring a domestic worker also have a responsibility to do their due diligence. One of which is to be aware of the realities on the ground. The other could be to seek out ethical recruitment agencies (they do exist), whose core business is centred on the rights and protection of the individual they are deploying overseas. These efforts are a small part of what we all can do as individuals to improve the situation. Through sheer economic power, the market forces can be shifted if there is a corresponding demand for ethical recruitment agencies.
Agency fee does not go to the domestic worker
“Now what do you do? Do you force her to stay against her will, because of her contract obligation? What if she cannot pay you back the amount you have paid the recruitment agency?”
The fact still remains that the recruitment agency is at fault and not the individual. It is important to highlight that the domestic worker is also a victim here; and the employer does not receive what they have paid for. Meanwhile, the agency that facilitated this process usually gets away and is not held accountable. The money one pays to a recruitment agency does not necessarily go to the maid.
The money you paid has gone into the recruitment process: to recruitment agents in the countries of origin; then there are (often illegal) sub-agents, who have networks spread across villages through which they solicit labourers; for medical documents; ‘processing fees’; pre-departure training costs; and tickets. Not to mention the bribes being sought and paid along the way to secure visas and a job contract from the Gulf.
Amidst all this, a woman in a village is told about a dream job in the Gulf, and a hope is sold to her. In Sri Lanka, many women are paid to become a domestic worker, but this is not always the case, and is definitely not representative of the region.
No doubt, the domestic worker and the employer are victims. But under the current system, the power relationship is skewed towards the latter. The system also places a heavy responsibility on the employer to do the right thing, and ensure they act as good kafeels, but are not given enough support and information on how to do this.
It befalls on the employer to educate themselves about these complexities, as they do have access to resources, and to do his or her due diligence during the recruitment process.
(Coming up: Continuing our series on Migrant Rights, the next articles will be on ethical recruitment)