'Victoria' had not been particularly unhappy with her job until it came to the December holidays.
She had arrived in Qatar in August 2012 from her home in the Philippines to work for an expatriate family in their Doha home, cleaning and looking after their children. Her hours were very long, starting at 05:00 every morning and working until about 20:00 in the evening, sometimes later. But, she told Amnesty International, she had a day off work every Friday, and she always got her monthly salary of 1,000 riyals [US$275] a month.
However, in December 2012, Victoria's workload increased to extreme levels. Twelve family relatives from Australia came to visit for the month, and she had to work flat-out to serve the house, with virtually no rest and no days off. Four of the group stayed for a further month and a half. When they left, she asked her employers to increase her wages for this period, to reflect the additional work she had done. Their response, according to Victoria, was to make her working conditions worse. For a month, she was not allowed out of the house, had no days off and was not allowed to speak to her friends. Her salary was docked.
"Because I answered back I was punished. They removed 100 riyals [US$27.50] from my monthly salary. Now I am only allowed a day-off twice a month. I have said to her, 'if you don't want me, send me back [home].'… I am supposed to have a holiday after I have worked for one year but I don't know if they will let me yet."
Working in a family home in a foreign country is, for millions of men and women around the world, a potentially attractive opportunity to find work, sometimes at higher salaries than they can earn at home.
But it is not without risk. Because migrant domestic workers are often isolated in the home and heavily dependent on their employer, they are at particular risk of exploitation and abuse. Women in such roles are additionally more exposed to abuses linked to their gender, including gender-based violence.
Victoria's story is, unfortunately, by no means the most extreme case of abuse heard by Amnesty International researchers investigating the situation of migrant women working as domestic workers in Qatar. It is rather a case that illustrates how exploitation of domestic workers in Qatar is at once part of a global phenomenon – an expatriate family can choose to discipline their expatriate employee for simply seeking adequate compensation for a brutal period of work – and is also very specific to Qatar's context.
Like all migrant workers, domestic workers in Qatar are subject to the highly restrictive kafala or sponsorship system, which gives their employer excessive control over them, including the power to deny them the right to leave the country or change jobs. Like all other foreign workers, they are barred from forming or joining trade unions.
In addition, domestic workers cannot challenge their employers if their labour rights are abused, because Qatar's laws specifically prevent them from doing so. Victoria could not take her employers to the authorities for docking her wages or asking her to work such extreme hours. It is probable that they were well-aware of this fact.
The system thus conspires on three levels to leave migrant domestic workers in Qatar open to exploitation and abuse: their isolation in the home; the excessive powers of their employers; and a legal system that is not designed to help them.
As a result, domestic workers are susceptible to serious abuses if they are recruited into the homes of families or individuals who seek to take advantage of this permissive environment. The abuses can be extreme. They include, but are not limited to:
- Deception about what their working conditions will be when they start work, particularly salary;
- Extreme working hours and lack of rest days, including seven-day, 100-hour working weeks;
- Severe restrictions on freedom of movement and communication, including not being able to leave the house or make mobile phone calls;
- Verbal harassment and dehumanising treatment; and
- Physical and sexual violence.
Some domestic workers interviewed by Amnesty International in Qatar are victims of forced labour and human trafficking; recruited with false promises of good salaries and decent working hours, compelled to work for employers who would not let them leave and facing – in several cases – the threat of physical abuse or lost wages if they challenged the employer.
Qatari officials have stressed to Amnesty International that migrant domestic workers are treated with respect, like "members of the family", by their employers. In a response to allegations of abuse against domestic workers made by the Guardian newspaper in February 2014, the government stated that the "vast majority" of domestic workers "work amicably, save money and send this home to improve the economic situation of their families and communities in their home countries".
Amnesty International has interviewed women who said their employers respected their rights. The organization does not claim that all domestic workers in Qatar are poorly treated or that all employers are abusers. Researchers met employers who were angered by cases of abuse and who had attempted to assist domestic workers in other households who were in distress. Nevertheless, the organization does not accept government claims that abuses against domestic workers in Qatar represent exceptional or isolated cases. This assessment is made on three main grounds.