Published On: Sun, Apr 27th, 2014

Desperate lives of women domestic workers exposed to appalling exploitation, physical violence and sexual abuse in Qatar

  • omen in Qatar are being exposed to ‘utterly miserable conditions’, a new report has found

  • The 77-page report was compiled by international human rights group Amnesty International

  • Some women are forced to work up to 100 hours a week with no days off

  • Others have told how they are physically and sexually abused

  • Conditions were exposed while Qatar prepares for the FIFA World Cup

Thousands of women migrant domestic workers in Qatar are being severely exploited and sexually abused in ‘utterly miserable conditions’, according to a new report by an international human rights group.

The 77-page Amnesty International report titled ‘My sleep is my break: Exploitation of domestic workers in Qatar’ has uncovered the appalling conditions women – primarily from the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka – face on a daily basis.

In the report, women are said to be lured to 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 also described how they were also subjected to sexual and physical violence. The report, which draws upon interviews with 52 female domestic workers, revealed 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, and 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 – known as 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’.

Amnesty International’s global issues director Audrey Gaughran said construction work in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has shone a spotlight on the plight of migrant workers in Qatar.

‘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,’ she said.

‘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.’

She said many women spoke about being terribly deceived, and then trapped and at the mercy of their abusive employers.

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.

“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,’ Ms Gaughran said.

‘Promises by the government to protect domestic workers’ labour rights have so far not amounted to anything.’

Amnesty researchers were told by women workers they were slapped, pulled by the hair, poked in the eyes, and kicked down the stairs by their employers. Three women also 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, with those who report sexual abuse also risking being charged with sexual relations outside of marriage – a ‘crime’ in Qatar normally punished with a year in jail and deportation.

PD, from the Philippines, told Amnesty that she was promised US$400 per month by a recruitment agency before she took up her job, but when she arrived in Qatar she only received $247.

‘When I complained, the madam [employer] … told me “you don’t deserve it”,’ PD, whose name has been disguised to protect her identity, explained.

‘I had to start work at 4am. I had to start at exactly that time. I would get about three to four hours’ sleep. I would be constantly washing or ironing clothes and if the clothes were not clean enough I would have to wash and iron them again.

‘My hands split and bled because of the work … I would run so hard that I would fall, and I lost feeling in my feet. I wasn’t even allowed to go to toilet while I was working.’

After two months of excessive hours and constant verbal abuse from her employer, PD said she contacted the employment agent whose only interest appeared to be in ensuring that she worked for at least three months with her employer.

‘“I called the recruitment agent and they would not help me. I think that this family has a history of problems – I heard that no-one has ever finished a contract with them,’ she said.

‘The agency told me to do a month’s more work and then just stopped answering the phone.’