Plenty of attention has been spent on the plight of construction workers in Qatar, with much of the reporting hyperbolic and even incorrect. Meanwhile, domestic workers — who are treated as badly, and often much worse — have mostly been ignored, primarily because the international press cannot easily link their maltreatment to the controversial football World Cup slated to be held in Qatar in 2022.
In an effort to address this, Amnesty International has released "My Sleep Is My Break", a report on the exploitation of migrant domestic workers in the tiny West Asian country. The study, based on interviews with 52 women working as domestic workers as well as government officials, embassy officials, activists, lawyers and employers of domestic workers.
The result is a harrowing account of unabashed oppression and abuse. These women — usually drawn from Asian countries like India, Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippines — are coerced, lied to, sometimes trafficked, underpaid, overworked, threatened and often the subjects of abuse, both physical and sexual.
Worse, Qatar, like most other countries in the region, has a legal system that bestows almost all of the power in the hands of the employer — making it next-to-impossible for a domestic worker to do anything but run away.
Below are step-by-step excerpts from the report detailing each step of the harrowing process.
1. Barefaced Lies
Contracts mean nothing. Domestic workers are often offered a reasonable amount of money or a limited amount of work, such as only having to take care of two children. As soon as they get to Doha, their passports are taken away and given to their employers — which is legal in the Qatari system — and they’re often given new contracts, sometimes entirely in Arabic. The hours end up being longer, the pay is often lower and the work ends up being much greater than they were initially told.
2. Callous Recruiters
Once the workers realise how they’ve been deceived, there is little they can do. Their passports have been taken away, and the recruitment agencies that are technically supposed to represent them turn a blind eye, because it costs them money to send workers back. A number of agencies that Amnesty International got in touch with to inform them about the state of workers they had placed simply denied the allegations or didn’t answer altogether.
3. Opaque Regulators
The Qatari government technically regulates recruitment agencies in the country, putting them into three categories with the majority of companies falling in the "poor" section. But Amnesty International's report suggests this regulation has at least as much to do with not inconveniencing employers as it does with protecting the rights of the domestic workers.
4. Legal Lacunae
Simply put, domestic workers don’t have labour rights. Why? Because, in Qatar, as in many other Gulf countries, domestic work isn’t protected by the labour law. That means abuse is only covered under the penal code, which is much harder to prosecute and proves particularly difficult for domestic workers who are barely given freedom to leave their accommodation, let alone approach a lawyer or the embassy to file a complaint.
5. Evil Employers
All of those aspects combine to give something close to impunity to employers of domestic workers, and many are not afraid to embrace this. Workers are forced to work long hours, get no days off, barely get to eat, are paid late, accommodated in woefully inadequate quarters, not allowed to go out or even use cell phones, subjected to verbal, psychological, physical and sexual abuse, discrimination and more.
Here is how one recruitment agency put it: "She will work full time and stay in your house, it is up to you how many hours she works though. The contract would say eight hours, but you know, she is staying in your house. There is no need to give a day-off but it is up to you."
A few stories documented by Amnesty International:
"They would not allow me to go out of the house – if I needed something I would have to write down what it was and give the money and they would buy it for me."
"The wife beat me every day... The husband was good; the children were fine. She would call me ‘animal,’ and say that I was crazy. She slapped me in the face so hard one time that my face turned black; it was so badly bruised. She once kicked me on the ground, kicking me all over, in my stomach."
"He would ask me for massages. He would say, 'massage me and I will massage you also.' He would always be touching and touching. I would tell his wife."
One particularly horrifying story related to a 49-year-old Filipina maid jumping out of a window, breaking her legs and spine and still getting sexually assaulted by her employer. “The more I think about it, I want to go home. I think I’ll have to drop the case. My situation is very hard. My family wants me to come home. My employer isn’t going to give me anything; he isn’t going to pay my salary. I don’t think I’ll win my case. I think I lost my case.”
The result is serious physical trauma, as well as a debilitating psychological impact. "In March 2013 Amnesty International was told by officials at Hamad Hospital’s Psychiatric Unit that anxiety or depression caused by deception about work was the number one cause of admission to the unit." In fact, about two-thirds of those admitted to the psych unit were attempted suicides, with the main nationalities being Indian, Nepali and Sri Lankan.
The fact is that evil employers exist everywhere, of course. But Amnesty International’s report explains, in exhaustive detail, how the legal system in Qatar — similar to most others in the region — is set up to make it easy for those who are willing to oppress and abuse domestic workers to get away with it. The report ends with a series of detailed recommendations that the Qatari government can take to prevent such abuse from being so widespread.
“Amnesty International's research, supported by the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants and embassies of countries of origin, has found serious abuse of migrant women employed as domestic workers in Qatar," the report said. "While domestic workers are at risk of exploitation in many countries of the world, it is clear that the way in which women are recruited and employed in Qatar and the lack of legal protection for domestic workers' labour rights exacerbates the situation very significantly and increases women's exposure to serious exploitation.“