Female domestic migrant workers in Qatar are being exploited and abused at the hands of their employers, Amnesty International’s investigation reveals. Amnesty’s latest report, “Why do you want to rest?”, details various abuses that female domestic migrant workers are subject to, including extreme working hours and harsh conditions, sexual abuse, and passport confiscation.
Speaking to 105 women, the report found that 89 women did not have a single weekly day off, and 90 women worked over 14 hours per day. Over half the women regularly worked over 18 hours, despite having signed contracts for 10 hours a day, including overtime and a day off per week. These conditions violate the Domestic Workers Law, introduced in 2017 to provide protections for workers. The Qatari state responded to Amnesty’s report citing these laws, arguing that they provide protection and coverage for workers. However, many of the laws include vague provisions, allowing conditions to be determined between the employer and employee and increasing the likelihood of exploitation. There is also a significant lack of law enforcement and monitoring, further allowing exploitative work practices to go unchecked.
“The overall picture is of a system which continues to allow employers to treat domestic workers not as human beings but as possessions.”
says Steve Cockburn, Head of Economic and Social Justice.
Qatar is home to over 173,000 domestic migrant workers predominantly from African and Asian countries, with women making up 60% of the workforce. A common theme between the women in the report is the feeling of entrapment, predicated on the kafala system. The kafala system ties domestic migrant workers to their employer, who has the power to determine a worker’s resident status in the country and the obtainment of their work visa. This is often used as leverage by employers to force workers into unsafe and exploitative working conditions under the threat of having their residency revoked. Reform in January 2020 removed the requirement of employees to seek permission from their employer to leave the country with an exit permit, but many find their passport is confiscated upon their arrival in Qatar.
Eighty-seven women in the Amnesty report had their passports confiscated by their employer, restricting their liberty and freedom of movement under both Qatari law and international labour laws.
The state of Qatar’s response said that the number of passport confiscations has declined in recent years due to stricter penalties, however 90% of employers still do so with little consequence. Employees are also discouraged from leaving the country temporarily, or speaking up against having their passport confiscated at the risk of being reported for “absconding”. If reported, a worker’s passport is submitted to the Criminal Investigation Department, who can then arrest the worker for having “become irregular in the country”. One woman who told her story to Amnesty detailed how her former employer said that her passport was “lost” in order to coerce her into returning to work. Over three years after her arrival in Qatar, the woman still had not received her salary and passport, leaving her no choice but to flee to her embassy.
Employed mainly in private homes as cleaners, child carers and cooks, women are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence, both physical and psychological. Thirty-two women said they had received verbal abuse, and 23 were denied adequate food, medical care and shelter.
Fifteen women said they suffered physical abuse, ranging from spitting and slapping to severe assaults. Five women reported sexual abuse, in some cases rape.
The United Nations The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) requires states to offer protections for women against gender-based violence and human rights violations. Qatar’s 2015 Sponsorship Law and the 2017 Domestic Workers Law include such provisions, however they again fall short of offering real protection with private employers taking advantage of the vague wording. Many of the women felt unable to go to the police due to fears of retaliation by their employer, possibly losing their job and accommodation.
Impact of Covid-19
The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated the dangers for both migrant and domestic migrant workers. Qatar has had 130,000 Covid-19 cases, but has rolled out free healthcare and testing and awareness campaigns in different languages. Despite this, migrant and domestic migrant workers remain the most vulnerable due to unsanitary and crowded living conditions, and lack of access to adequate healthcare. With schools and businesses closed and people staying in their homes, domestic migrant workers employed privately are the least likely to maintain social distancing due to the nature of the job roles. The results have been even longer working hours and excessive workloads, with little to no protection from the virus.
The Amnesty report pushes for a national plan of action to tackle the exploitation and abuse of domestic workers, with their inclusion in Labour Law and the Wage Protection System. As domestic migrant workers are barred from forming or joining trade unions, it is imperative that the Qatari state fully implement and enforce the current Domestic Workers Law, restricting the power of employees to determine the future of their workers. Amnesty also recommends the decriminalising of “absconding” so that workers can exercise freedom of movement and civil liberties.