Why domestic workers from the Philippines don’t watch football

Compare and contrast. In a few years’ time several hundred professional footballers from all over the world will arrive in the Gulf state of Qatar to take part in the 2022 World Cup.

Young men, along with hundreds of others - physiotherapists, dieticians, pyschologists, coaches, personals assistants, agents, managers, sundry officials - will stay in the country for several weeks, do the work they do, and, having being extremely well paid for it, they’ll fly out of the country again and get on with their lives.

Meanwhile, during the same period in mid-2022, it’s very likely that several hundred other overseas workers will arrive at the always-overcrowded Doha International Airport.

Young women from countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, the latest contingent of 'maids' (domestic workers) for Qatar’s homes - people hired in from overseas to do the cleaning, the clothes washing, ironing, child-minding, food preparation and all the other work the country’s well-off home-keepers want doing.

These workers will not be treated like the fawned-upon football industry elite. Here’s what the domestic workers can typically expect...

  • They’ll arrive at the airport and have their passports taken off them and handed straight over to their “placement agency” or their new employers. Either way, they’re unlikely to see their own passports again until they leave Qatar.
  • They’ll be taken to the employer’s family home to be told their pay is not the $400 they were promised, but around 50-60% of that, typically $210-250.
  • They’ll get allocated a small room (or even an area of the kitchen), quite possibly some kind of storage room rather than a proper bedroom.
  • They’ll be told their work must begin at 4:00 or 5:00am and continue until 22:00 or 23:00pm, and they may be told they’ll get no breaks until they go back to their beds to sleep.
  • They’ll be informed that they’re to get no day off and that the Friday rest day in Qatar does not apply to them.
  • They’ll be told they can’t leave the house unless in the company of family (typically for shopping trips only) and they’ll be prevented from going to church if they’re practising Christians. There’s a good chance their mobile phone will be confiscated and they might be locked in the house when the family goes out without them.
  • Their pay will be withheld for long periods or underpaid when it’s finally forthcoming.
  • They’ll be sworn at by their employers, humiliated by the employer’s children, slapped and kicked by the wife of the household (“Madam”) and ignored or sexually assaulted by the husband (“Sir”).

I say these things will happen, but of course some of them may not and indeed some of the 84,000 or so foreign female domestic workers in Qatar are reasonably happy with their situations. But, in both the booming construction sector and the less-well-reported domestic worker sector, a bleak scenario of labour exploitation, isolation and abuse is sadly commonplace in Qatar (one well-informed reporter calls non-payment and squalid working conditions “the rule” rather than the exception).

This hugely wealthy county - it has the highest per capital GDP in the entire world - is able to hire in “help” (inevitably cheaply purchased from poor countries), and the enormous wealth differentials, language and cultural barriers, and a sponsorship scheme which ties employees to employers (the notorious kafala system), all provide fertile ground for abuse.

Amnesty’s new report is full of examples. A woman ('Maria', a 24-year-old from the Philippines) who worked for four months from 5:30am to midnight, seven days week, who was never paid and fled her employer’s house after a mounting pattern of abuse from the wife. Another woman (“PD”, also from the Philippines) who had to start work at 4:00am, was reduced to three or four hours sleep a night and “wasn’t allowed to go to toilet” while working.

Meanwhile, the cases involving sexual violence are especially horrible, not least because - in a nasty sexist twist - any woman daring to report an incident runs the risk of herself being charged with a zina (illicit relations) offence of sex outside marriage. This commonly means a one-year prison sentence for a so-called “love crime”, and dozens end up behind bars every year as a consequence.

At the risk of lowering the tone here, professional male footballers and their wives are not exactly famous for their extreme fidelity and should one or two of the World Cup squads 'play away from home' during Qatar 2022, I somehow don’t think they’ll end up at a Doha police station facing a zina charge. Nor, for that matter, do I think the footballers will need a kafala sponsor, and nor do I think their passports or top-of-the-range, jewel-encrusted smartphones will be confiscated.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the domestic workers cleaning up around the families in Qatar watching the 2022 football on their enormous TVs will, I suspect, have little time for the soccer jamboree. They’ll be too busy keeping their heads down.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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