Qatar: domestic workers suffering extreme overwork and abuse - new report

A Filipina applicant for a domestic worker job in the Gulf undergoing intensive training in Manila © Getty Images

Many working more than 18 hours a day, with some never having a single day off

Workers report spitting, beating, kicking, punching and hair-pulling at hands of abusive employers

‘Qatar is still failing the most vulnerable women in the country’ - Steve Cockburn

Migrant domestic workers in Qatar have been pushed to breaking point by extreme overwork, lack of rest, and abusive and degrading treatment, said Amnesty International in a major new report today.

Amnesty spoke to 105 women who had been employed as live-in domestic workers - 90 of the women said they regularly worked more than 14 hours per day, while half worked more than 18 hours per day, almost double their contracted hours.

Eight-nine of the women who were in contact with Amnesty regularly worked seven days a week, and many of the women had never had a single day off at all.

Though Qatar has introduced a Domestic Workers Law for its 173,000 migrant domestic workers - with limits on working hours, mandatory daily breaks, a weekly day off and paid holidays - many women told Amnesty they were scared to refuse their employers’ endless requests, even when they desperately needed to rest.

Eighty-seven of the workers had also had their passport confiscated by their employers. 

Some also reported not being paid properly, while 40 women described being insulted, slapped or spat at. One woman said she was treated “like a dog”, with others describing sexual abuse (see cases below). 

At least 23 women interviewed by Amnesty said they were not given enough food, while some described sleeping in cramped rooms, on the floor or without air-conditioning. 

Amnesty’s 76-page report - ‘Why do you want to rest?’: Ongoing abuse of domestic workers in Qatar - highlights how the Qatari authorities’ are failing to conduct workplace inspections, and how recent reforms were failing to significantly address systemic abuse. Qatar recently introduced a minimum wage and abolished a requirement that workers obtain their employer’s permission to change jobs or leave the country. Though these changes may make it easier for workers to escape exploitative employers, they are unlikely to significantly reduce abuse itself or improve domestic workers’ conditions.

As a party to various international treaties prohibiting human rights abuses, Qatar is obliged to protect all workers, including domestic workers living and working in its territory, and should provide remedies when those rights are being violated.

Steve Cockburn, Head of Economic and Social Justice at Amnesty International, said:

“Domestic workers told us they were working an average of 16 hours a day, every day of the week, far more than the law allows. 

“Almost all had their passport confiscated by their employers, and others described not getting their salaries and being subjected to vicious insults and assaults.

“The overall picture is of a system which continues to allow employers to treat domestic workers not as human beings but as possessions.

“Despite efforts to reform labour laws, Qatar is still failing the most vulnerable women in the country.” 

Amnesty is calling on the Qatari authorities to take concrete steps to ensure full implementation of the law, establish strict inspection mechanisms and take serious action against abusive employers.

Cases: Emily, Joy and Julia

Amnesty spoke to 40 women who said they had suffered verbal and physical abuse, often involved degrading treatment, shouting and insults. 

Emily* said: 

“Madam will say ‘[you are] a monster, I will cut your tongue’. I am scared. She will tell me ‘I will kill you’, always bad words. I am only a [maid], and I can’t do anything.”

Fifteen women said they faced physical abuse at the hands of their employers or family members, including spitting, beating, kicking, punching and hair-pulling. 

Joy* said:

“Madam started shouting at all [the maids] … she started spitting on us and slapped me again … Before this incident she also kicked me on my back.”

Five women said they had been sexually abused by their employers or visiting relatives. The sexual abuse ranged from harassment to fondling and rape. Most women felt they could not complain to the police for fear of retaliation by their employers. One woman, Julia*, did report sexual abuse to the police. The son of Julia’s employer visited the house one day and attempted to rape another woman working in the house. The man offered the women money to keep quiet, but they went to the police. A police investigator accused Julia and her friend of “making up stories” and dropped the case. Finally, their employer bought them tickets home in exchange for the women signing a statement written in Arabic which they did not understand. 

Some of the women Amnesty interviewed were still in their jobs, while others had left but remained in Qatar; others had returned to their home countries. Like the women themselves, the employers they described were from many different countries. All names have been changed to protect identities.

Abusive employers not held to account

Qatar has utterly failed to hold abusive employers to account, meaning there is little to deter future abuses. Passport confiscation and unpaid wages are not being automatically investigated. Employers rarely face consequences when they refuse to hand back passports or pay unpaid wages.

Women who leave their jobs can face retaliation measures from their employers and be charged with “absconding” or other offences. At least ten women Amnesty spoke to were accused of theft, and 13 others had an “absconding” case filed by their employers. All women denied the charges and said they were filed after they fled abuses. 

The isolation of many domestic workers and the restrictions imposed on their freedom of movement make it very difficult for them access support and flee abuse. While some businesses are beginning to set up workplace committees for other migrant workers, no equivalent initiative exists for domestic workers. Domestic workers, like other migrant workers in Qatar, are unable to form and join trade unions. 

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‘Why do you want to rest?’: Ongoing abuse of domestic workers in Qatar