The Qatari authorities are failing to protect thousands of foreign domestic workers who face severe exploitation – including forced labour and physical and sexual violence – Amnesty International says in a new report published today (23 April).
The 77-page report – My sleep is my break’: Exploitation of domestic workers in Qatar – paints a bleak picture of women, mainly from the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka who are recruited to work in Qatar on the basis of false promises over salaries and working conditions, only to be made to work extreme hours and seven-day weeks. Some women described how they were also subjected to appalling episodes of sexual and physical violence.
The report – which draws upon interviews with 52 female domestic workers, with government officials, embassies of workers’ countries of origin and recruitment agencies – shows that in some cases women in Qatar are being made to work up to 100 hours per week, with no days off. Under Qatari law there are no limits on working hours for domestic workers and no requirement to allow them a day off. Domestic workers are unable to lodge complaints with Qatar’s Labour Ministry – a situation which Amnesty is calling on the Qatari authorities to remedy urgently.
Qatar’s estimated 84,000 women migrant domestic workers are subject to the country’s highly restrictive sponsorship system (the kafala system), which prevents migrant workers from leaving their job or the country without their employer’s permission. As with male construction industry workers, the women routinely have their passports withheld by their employers, and in some cases employers also confiscate their mobile phones. While some women find good jobs and are treated well, those facing abuse are left with little choice but to 'run away', putting them at risk of being arrested, detained and deported on charges of 'absconding'. Up to 95 per cent of the women held at Doha’s deportation centre in March 2013 were domestic workers.
An Indonesian woman being held at the deportation centre after fleeing from sustained physical abuse, showed Amnesty researchers a deep scar on her chest where her female employer had branded her with a hot iron. She told researchers she’d been forced to work seven days a week, was not paid for months and was banned from leaving the house. She eventually managed to leave the house, only to be picked up by the police and detained.
Amnesty International’s Global Issues Director Audrey Gaughran said: “International attention on the 2022 Fifa World Cup has thrown a spotlight on the plight of migrant construction workers in Qatar. However, the complete absence of protections for domestic workers’ labour rights, and the fact that they are isolated in employers’ homes, leaves them exposed to abuse to an even greater extent.
“Migrant domestic workers are victims of a discriminatory system that denies them basic protections and leaves them open to exploitation and abuse, including forced labour and human trafficking.
“We have spoken to women who have been terribly deceived, then found themselves trapped and at the mercy of abusive employers, banned from leaving the house. Some women said they were threatened with physical violence when they told their employers they wanted to leave.
“Women who find themselves in abusive households face utterly miserable conditions. They have few options – if they choose to simply to get out of the house, they will be branded ‘runaways’ and are likely to end up being detained and deported.
“Promises by the government to protect domestic workers’ labour rights have so far not amounted to anything. Qatar must stop dragging its feet over this and guarantee domestic workers legal protection for basic rights immediately.”
Amnesty researchers heard shocking testimonies of violent abuse in Qatar, including women who reported being slapped, pulled by the hair, poked in the eyes, and kicked down the stairs by their employers. Three women reported that they had been raped.
In one horrific case, a domestic worker broke both her legs and fractured her spine when she fell from a window as she tried to escape a rape attack by her employer. Her attacker then proceeded to sexually assault her as she lay on the ground, injured and unable to move, and only afterwards did he call an ambulance. When researchers interviewed her six months after the attack, she was still using a wheelchair. Despite her appalling injuries, Qatar’s public prosecutor dismissed the case due to “lack of evidence” and she returned to the Philippines last year. Her employer has never been held accountable.
Women who have been physically or sexually abused face major obstacles to getting justice, and none of the women Amnesty spoke to had seen their attackers prosecuted or convicted. Moreover, women who report sexual abuse also risk being charged with 'illicit relations' - sexual relations outside of marriage - a 'crime' in Qatar normally punished with a year in jail and deportation.
In March last year, Amnesty was told by a senior prison official that 74 of 75 women held at Doha’s women’s prison were foreign nationals, and more than two-thirds of these were domestic workers; Amnesty was separately told that a large proportion were held for so-called 'love crimes'. Pregnant women were among those imprisoned and 13 babies under two years old were being detained with their mothers. Amnesty is calling for the 'illicit relations' charge to be removed from Qatar’s laws without delay.
In November 2013, Amnesty published a 166-page report – The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup – documenting widespread and routine abuse of Qatar’s migrant construction industry workers, in some cases amounting to forced labour. For example, Nepalese workers employed by a company delivering supplies to a building project associated with the planned Fifa headquarters for Qatar 2022, said they were “treated like cattle” by their employer. In response, the Qatari government has said the law firm DLA Piper would examine Amnesty’s findings as part of a wider review of the situation of migrant workers in Qatar. The DLA Piper report is expected in the coming weeks.