More safeguards must be put into place to protect domestic workers in Qatar, and laws should be amended to give women more equal footing in matters of marriage, divorce and custody, Amnesty International said in a new report released yesterday.
The 21-page document was published ahead of a full report tracking Qatar’s progress in meeting its obligations under the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which the country is a signatory. That report is expected to filed next month.
Domestic workers such as maids, gardeners and cooks are not protected by Qatar’s labor laws, and the private nature of their work makes it difficult for authorities to investigate allegations of maltreatment.
This has led to exploitation of some women in Qatar, who have been subject to excessive working hours, late and unpaid wages, restrictions on movement and sexual assaults.
Compounding the problem is that women who seek help may end up facing criminal charges themselves.
A domestic servant fleeing an abusive employer can be charged with absconding and be deported. Meanwhile, any woman who is sexually assaulted can be charged with “illicit relations” if she is not married to the perpetrator.
This has a chilling effect on victims and leads to abuse going under-reported to authorities, Amnesty said.
While quantifying the scope of the problem has been difficult, abuse cases appear to be rising. The Qatar Foundation for Combating Human Trafficking said last year that it receives between 200 and 300 requests a month for assistance from domestic workers or their families.
For its part, Amnesty said it interviewed 50 domestic workers in Qatar between October 2012 and November 2013 and found “a number of patterns of abuses.”
Mental health problems also are a problem for this vulnerable segment of the population. According to Amnesty, Hamad Hospital said some 30 domestic workers a year were admitted to its Psychiatric Unit, the highest prevalence among any job category. The report states:
“Anxiety or depression caused by deception about work was the number one cause of admission to the unit…Attempted suicide was the most common reason for admission.”
Additionally, more than a dozen domestic workers visited the unit daily in 2012 to be treated for anxiety related to job stress, culture shock and anger management.
In addition to the sections on domestic workers, the document highlights the lack of specific laws criminalizing domestic violence and marital rape. It also deals with the unequal treatment of Qatari men and women under the law in matters such as marriage, divorce and child custody, as well as applying for and renewing a passport.
Along with calling for more serious investigations into abuse allegations, Amnesty recommended relaxing Qatar’s sponsorship laws so that workers have more freedom to leave abusive employers and seek other employment – or leave the country, among other measures.
In its report, the human rights organization said:
“Workers have limited avenues open if they are being exploited. If workers arrive in Qatar to find that they have been deceived about the terms and conditions of their work during the recruitment process, or are subjected to abusive working or living conditions by their employer, the question of whether or not they can change jobs depends on their employer – the very person responsible for their abuse.”
Such a suggestion is likely to face resistance by many Qatari nationals, who said in a poll that they don’t want to see the country’s kafala (sponsorship) system weakened.
Technically, Qatar’s laws allow the Ministry of Interior to transfer an expat’s sponsorship “in the event of abuse.” What exactly that entails is undefined, according to Amnesty, which said the government permitted a relatively small number – some 49 people – to permanently change jobs in 2012.
Government officials in Qatar and other GCC nations are theoretically addressing the issue of working hours and pay for domestic workers with a standardized contract that’s been in the works for several years.
There are some measures contained within draft versions of the contract that Amnesty said it welcomes, such as a mandatory day off for domestic workers each week as well as a rule making it mandatory for wages to be paid by bank transfer.
However, the draft contains no mention of a working hour cap and also lacks provisions guaranteeing workers protection against abuse, harassment and violence.
More significantly, Amnesty argues that enforcing any such contract could be problematic.
Domestic workers, including drivers, cooks and gardeners, are specifically excluded from the protections of Qatar’s labor laws. Amnesty said this means it is unclear whether a contract would have any basis in law:
“A standard contract, without a legal basis, would be very difficult to enforce for domestic workers, who face challenges accessing legal procedures in any case.”
Domestic workers, Amnesty said, are also faced with “discriminatory attitudes” among some government officials who oppose granting them additional rights:
“A senior Ministry of Interior official also told Amnesty International in October 2012 that it would be difficult to give women working as domestic workers a day off because they might behave illegally or inappropriately on their days off, such as by drinking alcohol or meeting boyfriends.”
One woman’s experience
Prior to the release of Amnesty’s report, Doha News spoke to a domestic worker from the Phillipines who lived in Qatar between 1998 and 2002 and is now employed in Saudi Arabia.
Carmen Arnejo described experiencing many of the same forms of maltreatment documented in this week’s Amnesty document, such as being assigned inadequate living quarters, working excessive hours and prevented from going out on her own.
“I didn’t have a day off,” she said, adding she was on call 24/7 and was routinely woken by her employer when they wanted her services.
“The only day off is when you go outside with the family. But you are not alone. It is not really a day off.”
Arnejo said she was not given her own room and chose to sleep in the bathroom for privacy. She said she was not allowed to use the telephone to call her family because her employer feared she would become homesick.
Arnejo said there were also good times – she had the opportunity to accompany the family on trips to the US and France.
Now she is working as a maid in Saudi Arabia. She said she has her own house inside a compound and is free to go out when she is not working, although needs to arrange a driver in advance.
However, like in Qatar, many of her peers in Saudi Arabia are paid less than what their contract stipulates and are denied time off.
Nevertheless, Arnejo said she’s tried to put her Qatar work experience behind her. “I tried to forget everything and move on. I’m still alive and moving on with my life.”