Qatar’s human rights record is under scrutiny as Doha hosts the World Cup. Much has been written about the treatment of foreign workers who built stadiums and hotels in preparation for the event, but what about the foreign domestic workers who work for the wealthy families and the ruling family in Qatar?
Megha Mohan, the BBC’s gender and identity reporter, contacted two domestic workers for two elite Qatari families and asked them about their experience, working hours and leave status.
You have not taken leave for 18 months
She called Gladys, not her real name, late at night after the Velveteen family she worked for had gone to bed.
In a short online chat, she told me that she starts work at 8 in the morning and continues until 11 at night. Her duties include cleaning, helping to prepare food, and taking care of the children.
Gladys, a Filipina in her 40s, says she eats leftovers from family meals and hasn’t had a day off since she started working 18 months ago.
And about the mistress of the house where she works, Gladys says: “My lady is crazy,” adding: “She yells at me every day.”
Before Qatar won the hosting of the 2022 World Cup, foreign employees and workers could not change jobs or leave the country without obtaining the employer’s consent, which is called the sponsorship system, and it is still almost continuous in most Gulf countries .
However, with the spotlight on it, the government of Qatar has started to introduce reforms in this regard, but the extent of its actual application on the ground is still a matter of controversy.
For example, Gladys says her employer has her passport and she is not sure if he will return it to her if she asks for it to leave the country.
But despite this, Gladys considers herself lucky. At least she was allowed to keep her phone, unlike some other foreign domestic workers. She is also not subjected to physical abuse, which she says often happens to maids in Qatar.
Another reason why she wants to stay in her current job is that she believes that at her age she will probably not get a better job. She earns 1,500 riyals a month (a little over 400 US dollars), and can send the money to the Philippines to support her family.
Domestic workers in Qatar
- The number of domestic workers in Qatar is estimated to be around 160,000, according to the data of the Qatar Planning and Statistics Authority for the year 2021.
- In 2017, the Qatari government issued amendments to the Domestic Workers Law, limiting working hours to 10 hours a day and requiring daily rest periods, a weekly day off and paid holidays.
- In 2020, the government also set a minimum wage, giving foreign workers the right to change jobs or leave the country without asking their employer’s permission.
However, Amnesty International says that these laws are not always respected, and that long working hours, lack of rest and abusive and degrading treatment persist.
Many are silent about the poor working conditions, says Joanna Concepcion of Migrant International, a non-governmental organization that supports OFWs, because getting money to support their families is their top priority.
But, she adds, those workers in the Gulf states, when they feel confident enough to speak freely, often talk about serious abuse.
According to Concepcion, one woman said her employer would stick her head in the toilet and refuse her food and water when he was angry.
Work in a mansion from the “fairytale world”
On the other hand, Althea, which is also not her real name, presents a very different picture of her life as a domestic helper in Qatar.
Althea works for the ruling Al-Thani family, and she contacted the BBC via video call from a basement in the palace.
Smiling as she spoke animatedly, she said they gave her an iPhone, clothes, jewelry and shoes she would never have been able to afford in her home country of the Philippines.
Like Gladys, the difficulty of earning a living wage in her own country motivated her to work in Qatar.
As we talked, other Filipino workers joined in, who were in the great room of Althea’s residence.
They said they had their own bedrooms as well as a kitchen. And this is important. The servants who watch Althea on TikTok and Facebook and beg for food, pleading for someone to come to their rescue, have not had the same luck.
“I keep seeing these videos online, and that’s why I feel so happy,” says Althea. “For me, every day feels like I’m living in a fairy tale world,” she adds.
Still, the work is arduous in “Cinderella’s Palaces,” the name Althea gives to the royal family’s palaces, with their high ceilings and chandeliers, gold-studded antiques, mother-of-pearl tabletops and piles of fresh-cut flowers.
The working day usually starts at 6:30 am. by preparing breakfast for the family. Althea eats as soon as the family has finished eating. After lifting the table, the workers clean the rooms, then later prepare the place for lunch.
“It’s light work because there are many of us (workers),” says Althea.
The maids rest in their apartments between three and six in the evening, and then begin preparations for dinner. Once dinner is over, Althea’s work is done, and she is free to leave the compound if she wishes.
Althea points out that the family doesn’t keep her passport. But Althea works every day, including weekends, so she doesn’t get the day off that Qatari law is now supposed to guarantee, unless the employee chooses to give it up. It is a price she pays to provide essential financial support to her family.
Mary Grace Morales, who works for a recruitment firm in Manila as an intermediary between domestic workers and wealthy families in the Gulf, says working in the palace is an “enviable” job.
“There are many perks, and the family is generous,” she says. In a comment that reflects the life of deprivation that workers may have lived in their homeland, Morales adds: “The girls gain weight while in the palace. The family feeds them well.”
But at the same time, she points out that the ruling family has very specific requirements.
“The girls sent to work for the ruling Qatari family are between the ages of 24 and 35 and are very beautiful,” Morales added.
She is silent for a while as she looks at me through the screen, which I am also watching from my place in the BBC offices in London.
“Prettier than you,” she said and smiled.
But she later sends me an apologetic message on WhatsApp, as her children overheard the conversation, and they told her that her comment was rude.
I assured her that I wasn’t offended or upset, nor did I mention that hiring people based on appearance is illegal in many countries.
And Morales adds that they must be young women because the Qatari ruling family needs domestic workers who are energetic and healthy, and able to handle the demanding and very busy environment in the palace.
“The applicants must be beautiful… very beautiful,” she repeated.
Joanna Concepcion, of Migrant International, says she hopes Althea’s description of her experience working in the prince’s palace is correct, but adds: “It is unlikely we will know for sure while she is in Qatar working for a family which has so much. force.”
Some employees of the ruling family in Qatar complained after leaving the country. In 2019, three people from Britain and the United States, who are a bodyguard, a personal trainer and a private tutor, filed a lawsuit against the sister of the Emir of the country, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and her husband, say they were forced to work long hours without being paid. Overtime pay. But the family denied the allegations and requested diplomatic immunity as the case documents were handed over in New York.
“Reporting cases of violence and harassment, lack of safety and health measures at work, and the lack of adequate housing can be challenging,” says Ruba Jaradat, regional director for Arab States at the International Labor Organization.
The ILO says it is working with the Qatari government to implement the new rules requiring minimum wages, one day off each week, paid sick leave as well as overtime pay, although this remains a “challenge”.
From her place in the palace, Althea says she is happy despite the long hours.
When she goes to sleep, she usually sends a message to one of her brothers or to her parents in the Philippines, and she often feels homesick, since the palace that appears from the world of fairy tales is not her place. However, it remains an essential source of income.
“I would never be able to support my family without this job,” she says.
The BBC asked for comment from the ruling family in Qatar, and from the Qatari embassy in London, but received no response.
Graphics by Marta Clawe Rizzi