Fri, Feb 28, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Doha domestic workers face slave-like conditions

Reports of the mistreatment of maids and cleaners have sharpened the image of widespread labor abuse in World Cup host Qatar

By Rebecca Falconer  /  The Guardian, DOHA

Illustration: Mountain People

Foreign maids, cleaners and other domestic workers are being subjected to slave-like labor conditions in Qatar, with many complaining they have been deprived of passports, wages, days off, holidays and freedom to change jobs, a Guardian investigation has revealed.

Hundreds of Filipino maids have fled to their embassy in recent months because conditions are so harsh. Many complain of physical and sexual abuse, harassment, long periods without pay and the confiscation of mobile phones.

The exploitation raises further concerns about labor practices in Qatar in advance of the World Cup, after earlier reports about the treatment of construction workers. The maids are not directly connected to Qatar’s preparations for the soccer tournament, but domestic workers will play a big role in staffing the hotels, stadiums and other infrastructure that will underpin the 2022 tournament.

The investigation reveals:

‧ The Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) sheltered more than 600 runaway maids in the first six months of 2013 alone.

‧ Some workers say they have not been paid for months.

‧ Many housemaids do not get days off.

‧ Some contracts and job descriptions are changed once the workers arrive in Qatar.

‧ Women who report a sexual assault can be charged with illicit relations.

The non-payment of wages, confiscation of documents and inability of workers to leave their employer constitute forced labor under UN rules. According to the International Labour Organization, forced labor is “all work which is exacted from someone under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

Lack of consent can include induced indebtedness and deception about the type and terms of work, withholding or non-payment of wages and the retention of identity documents. Initial consent may be considered irrelevant when deception or fraud has been used to obtain it.

“Menace of penalty” can include physical violence, deprivation of food and shelter, non-payment of wages, the inability to repay a loan, exclusion from future employment and removal of rights and privileges.

Modern-day slavery is estimated to affect up to 21 million people across the globe.

In January, at least 35 runaway maids had sought sanctuary at the POLO in Qatar’s capital, Doha, which provides support to 200,000 Filipinos in the nation. The welfare officer said most complained of pay being withheld, insufficient food, overwork and maltreatment. Some said they had endured verbal and physical abuse by sponsors of different nationalities.

Eight Filipino workers interviewed by reporters said they had not been paid for six months, were sometimes deprived of food while cleaning for long hours and had their passports confiscated.

“We are afraid,” 28-year-old Jane said.

“We don’t really know what to do. We are trying to survive. That’s why we do part-time jobs secretly,” she said.

If they are caught breaching their contract, the maids face months in a deportation center. The repatriation process is often delayed when people do not have their passports, according to James Lynch, Amnesty International’s researcher on Gulf migrants’ rights.

Qatar vigorously denies it is a “slave state” and is understood to be reviewing the controversial system that governs migrant labor and to have stepped up inspections of businesses that use migrant workers. The Qatari Ministry of Labor said in a statement: “We have clear laws and contractual terms in place to protect all people who live and work in Qatar and anyone found to have broken those laws will be prosecuted accordingly.”

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