Maids: Out of sight, out of mind
I landed at Doha International Airport from a trip, and after clearing immigration I went over to carousel 1, where my bags were arriving. Behind me, there was lady holding all her bags, standing by the rack where the baggage trolleys are stored. There was a curious sign behind her: ‘Maid Waiting Area.’
Intrigued, I spoke to this Sri Lankan woman. She had been waiting there for about four hours, having been told to wait there until her sponsor came to take her. The lady had no idea when she would be picked up and was unable to inform her husband back home of her arrival in Qatar. Upon further inquiry, it was revealed that the maids waiting area, with its roughly twenty seats, is where newly arrived female domestic workers should wait to be ‘collected’ by a sponsor, a local recruiting agent, or another ‘authorised person’. Most often, they are picked up without much delay; however, there have been instances where some have waited up to a day, waiting to be picked up. Another observer told me that during this waiting period, they often do not have access to drinking water, food or means to contact the families they left behind.
When people speak about labour issues in Qatar, the focus tends to be on the mass of male construction and service workers. Just a drive down any of Doha’s major streets, and you will see these men in their blue, yellow or green overalls. It is fairly easy to strike up a conversation, and understand the challenges they face, if any. A visit to the Industrial Area on a Friday evening reveals a different world, with thousands of male workers concentrated in a single area.
Maids and other household workers have no such place. Having their own waiting area could indicate that they are seen differently because they are a part of the sanctity of a private home and family. They may be seen in public with their employers, sometimes in uniforms, carrying bags or babies. Many may be content with good pay and dignified treatment. However, it is extremely challenging to speak with a maid to learn more about their lives in Qatar. In public spaces they are usually on the job, and in private they are inside a family’s home, working under contracts that do not require a day off.
While we often hear of stories of maid abuse, it’s worth mentioning that many families treat their household employees with dignity and respect.
Exclusion from Qatar labour law
It is important to note that domestic workers are excluded from the Labour Laws of Qatar. According to the law, ‘domestic workers’ include housemaids, drivers, gardeners, cooks and other employees who can be categorized as ‘household workers’. This means that they do not receive protection under the labour law, as other occupations do.
While Qatari Labour Law clearly outlines legal obligations for employers to pay their workers in a timely fashion, provide them with days off, include premium pay rates for overtime, and gratuity, the same does not apply for domestic workers. Domestic worker contracts do usually include provisions for maximum working hours per day (twelve), compulsory provision of ‘adequate food’, and ‘suitable housing and sanitary facilities’. The contracts also permit the employee to break the contract in case of abuse or non-payment of wages. However, it is not clear what legal recourse they can take in cases where their contracts have been violated, other than civil or criminal law that will require the assistance of a lawyer. Also important to bear in mind is that most of these workers are recruited through agencies, and have very little interaction with the household that employs them, thereby severely limiting their negotiation opportunity.
There is a unified GCC contract for domestic workers that is under deliberation, which hopes to extend more rights to the workers. However, this contract again works on the premise that there are related legislations in place in individual countries.
The contract hopes overhaul the existing system and provide workers with mandatory days off (still seen as controversial), timely wage payment and a provision to enable communication with their families back home. The right to hold possession of their passports is clearly outlined as well.
A similar draft law was discussed with significant publicity in 2008 in Qatar, but nothing tangible transpired from it. It remains to be seen what this law would do to change the existing status quo, if and when passed. Even with a unified GCC contract, and a joint law specific to domestic workers, will this be applied uniformly to all household workers? Are these laws a part of existing labor laws or a different category of legislation applicable only to domestic workers?
(Read the analysis of both the stalled Qatar domestic workers’ law and the GCC unified contract here. Source of infographics: 2013 ILO report on Domestic Workers Across the World.)