A Qatari military official and his Emirati wife have been arrested in the US for allegedly abusing two of their housekeepers, forcing them to work without pay and threatening them with jail in Qatar if they complained, according to the US Department of Justice.
Hassan Salem H. M. Al Homoud and his wife Zainab Al Hosani were arrested by special agents of a division of the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Saturday.
Yesterday, the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas announced in a statement that the couple has been charged with “engaging in forced labor by obtaining the labor and services of two persons by means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, and threats of physical restraint.”
The case came to light in early April when an officer from the San Antonio Police Department found one of the women on Camp Bullis Road in “apparent distress.”
The women took officers to a nearby apartment where she and the other housekeeper lived. According to the statement, that flat was furnished “with only a pallet on the floor for sleeping.”
The couple made their first appearance in a court in San Antonio, Texas yesterday afternoon. If they are convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $250,000.
It is likely that such an abuse case would be treated differently in Qatar, where domestic help is not covered by the labor law. Just months ago, officials in Doha and from across the GCC backed away from plans to introduce a common contract for domestic workers in the region.
It had been hoped that this legislation would have addressed the exploitation of women, nannies and cooks in homes in the Gulf.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian government said last month that it would ban its nationals from taking jobs as domestic staff in 21 MENA countries, including Qatar. This was being done to “protect the human values and dignity of the nation,” the manpower minister said.
According to the charges, Al Homoud had moved to San Antonio, along with his wife and two children, to attend military training at Camp Bullis, a US army training camp.
In June 2014, Al Homoud sponsored visas for two women to work for the family as household staff while in the US.
One of the employees is an Indonesian citizen and the other is from Bangladesh.
While in San Antonio, the two women were housed in primitive conditions, unable to freely move or travel and were given only limited amounts of food, the criminal complaint states.
Al Homoud and Al Hosani also apparently refused to allow the women to have cellphones, and withheld their passports and visas.
“Al Hosani also threatened the workers with arrest and incarceration in Qatar if they failed to perform their work obligations,” the State’s Attorney’s Office statement added.
During the initial federal court hearing yesterday, Magistrate Judge John Primomo set the defendants’ bond at $100,000 each, according to local publication the San Antonio Express News.
The women were apparently working under a domestic employee contract that stated they would make about $1,500 a month.
However, the women claimed that despite repeated requests, they were never paid during their time working for the family, and Al Hosani threatened to send them to jail in Qatar if they spoke out or stopped working.
Each day, the women were taken from their apartment – to which they had no key – to the family home, where they worked as housekeepers.
They were only allowed to eat leftovers, but they limited themselves to what they ate and drank as they were not allowed to use the toilets in the family home, the statement said.
In the claim, the Indonesian helper alleged that Al Hosani beat her with a stick on one occasion when she caught her going through the trash looking for food.
When they were not working, the women said they were told to sit inside the home’s garage in a plastic structure similar to a portable shed. A neighbor reportedly said she heard crying coming from the garage, Express News reported.
A preliminary court hearing is due to take place on Friday morning, the newspaper added.