‘Spitting, kicking and hair-pulling’: Female domestic workers in Qatar face abuse as employers confiscate passports

Female domestic workers in Qatar are being subjected to extreme levels of abuse as they are forced to work more than 18 hours a day with no option to leave, a new report has found.

Workers described how their abusive employers belittled them by pulling their hair and spitting on them, as well as instances of being beaten, kicked and punched.

The report, by Amnesty International, noted that domestic workers in Qatar have their passports confiscated by their employers, making it very difficult to flee the abuse – adding that women have been driven to “breaking point” by being overworked with no time to rest while suffering abusive and degrading misconduct.

“Madam will say ‘[you are] a monster, I will cut your tongue’. I am scared. She will tell me ‘I will kill you’, always bad words. I am only a [maid], and I can’t do anything,” Emily*, a domestic worker, said.

Joy*, another employee, added: “Madam started shouting at all [the maids] … she started spitting on us and slapped me again … Before this incident she also kicked me on my back.”

Fifteen women said they faced physical abuse at the hands of their employer or employer’s family, out of a total of 105 interviews with women who worked as live-in domestic staff.

Of those interviewed, 90 out of the 105 said they routinely worked more than 14 hours each day, while half worked more than 18 hours per day, almost double the hours their contracts stipulated.

Many of the women said they were never given a single day off during their employment, and 89 of the interviewees said they regularly worked seven days a week. A large majority – 87 – had their passport seized by their employer.

Steve Cockburn, head of economic and social justice at Amnesty International, said: “Domestic workers told us they were working an average of 16 hours a day, every day of the week, far more than the law allows.

“Almost all had their passport confiscated by their employers, and others described not getting their salaries and being subjected to vicious insults and assaults. The overall picture is of a system which continues to allow employers to treat domestic workers not as human beings but as possessions.

“Despite efforts to reform labour laws, Qatar is still failing the most vulnerable women in the country.”

A handful of the women said their employer or family members visiting the house had sexually abused them – with the behaviour spanning from harassment to groping and rape.

Some women said their employers were not paying them properly, while others said they were not given enough food and were forced to sleep in cramped rooms on the floor with no air conditioning.

Employers seek revenge on workers who leave their jobs and can charge them with “absconding” or other offences.

There are 173,000 migrant domestic workers in Qatar and they are predominantly from Asia and Africa. Domestic workers, like other migrant workers in the country, are blocked from setting up trade unions.

In January, Qatar announced most migrant workers previously blocked from leaving the country without getting their employer’s consent will no longer need an exit permit. At the time, Human Rights Watch warned the broader kafala (visa sponsorship) system continues to be in place – saying this enables migrant workers to be exploited.

International human rights legislation states all people have the right to leave any country, including their own nation, and to go back to their country.

*Joy and Emily’s names have been changed to protect their identities 

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