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Migrants abused

Jennifer Fraczek / slkApril 23, 2014

Migrant domestic workers in Qatar are powerless in the face of widespread abuse, according to Amnesty International. The human rights group has called on the country to extend labor protections to household servants.

Doha Skyline 20.02.2014
Image: Getty Images

Last year, reports of deadly accidents and inhumane working conditions at World Cup construction sites in Qatar sparked an international outcry. But another group of migrant workers also faces hardship in the Gulf kingdom, according to Amnesty International.In a report published on Wednesday, the London-based human rights group sheds light on the plight of domestic workers in Qatar.

In a series of interviews, the victims describe a horrifying situation. They tell a story of extremely low wages, 100-hour workweeks, virtually no breaks or holidays, little sleep, and humiliation and violence at the hands of their employers.

"The working conditions are very harsh for domestic workers," Regina Spöttl, Amnesty's Qatar expert, told DW.

More than 130,000 foreign nationals - primarily from South and Southeast Asia - work in Qatar as cleaners, cooks, babysitters, drivers and gardeners. Around 84,000 of them are women while 48,000 are men. They work for Qataris, Europeans, Americans, Asians, and Africans.

Reports of rape and assault

For the report "My Sleep is My Break," Amnesty interviewed 52 female domestic workers from October 2012 until March 2013. The human rights group also spoke with the authorities, particularly the Interior and Labor Ministries as well as the embassies of the women's home countries.

The women reported being beaten, pulled by the hair, and pushed down flights of steps. An Indonesian woman had scars from knife wounds and a burn from a clothing iron, which was pressed against her chest. Three women said they had been raped.

Human Rights Watch - Nepalese workers in Qatar
NGOs have reported about abuse against Nepalese workers in Qatar for the past two yearsImage: Sam Tarling

"Charges are rarely pressed in cases of rape, because the women fear that they will be viewed as offenders instead of victims," Spöttl said. "They are often accused of having behaved in a lewd manner."

At the mercy of employers

Although a survey of 52 domestic workers may be a small sample, the women's stories are relevant and meaningful, Spöttl said. She estimated that around half of all migrant domestic workers in Qatar are subject to some sort of abuse.

The embassies of their home countries receive several dozen complaints a week. Meanwhile, the Qatar Foundation for Combating Human Trafficking (QFCHT) registered between 200 and 300 telephone complaints per month in 2013.

Agencies recruit the migrants in their home countries, deceiving them about what kind of life they can expect in Qatar. The migrants often cannot even read their work contracts, which are written in Arabic. They also have no freedom of movement, because they are legally bound to so-called "sponsors."

"Through the sponsor law, they are at the mercy of their employers," Spöttl said. That's because domestic workers are not allowed to change jobs or leave the country without the permission of their sponsors, normally the head of the host family. If they try to leave or change jobs without permission, they can be prosecuted.

There are labor laws in Qatar that limit working hours and guarantee holidays as well as the right to file complaints about job conditions. But the laws don't apply to domestic workers.

World Coup construction site in Qatar
Qatar has done little to improve working conditions on World Cup construction sitesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Qatar promises improvements

Amnesty and other human rights groups have called on the Qatari government to extend protections provided by labor laws to domestic workers and to abolish - or fundamentally reform - the sponsor system. Women who flee their employers should not be treated as criminals and domestic violence should be punished, Amnesty added.

Human rights organizations like Amnesty have repeatedly expressed their concerns directly to Qatar and the other Gulf states about the hardships faced by foreign workers. But so far, the political pressure on the Qatari government has not been strong enough. Even after the revelations about the catastrophic work conditions at the World Cup construction sites, the Qatari government still has not made any fundamental changes.

"Qatar's government simply doubled the number of inspectors that go to the workplace and check if the labor laws are being implemented," Spöttl said. Although the Organizing Committee for the FIFA World Cup drafted working standards, these only apply to workers on the aforementioned construction sites.

In response to the abuses documented in Amnesty's report, the Qatari government has promised to improve migrant domestic workers' difficult conditions, according to Spöttl. But so far, no concrete action has been taken.