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Domestic workers enter employment already branded untrustworthy; Stereotypes persist

On December 1, 2014

Ghareisa* remembers her great-aunt fondly: she was generous and everyone from her tenants to the neighbourhood shopkeepers who delivered her bread and milk spoke highly of her good nature. But for some reason, her great-aunt did not get along with any of her live-in helpers, preferring to get a new one every two years.

“She complained no end about them,” says Ghareisa, “and it was hard to believe they were all bad. But, she was really nice to our maids when we visited her with them. She even gave our maids monetary gifts, in a way to encourage them to report on her maid if they found out anything. Everyone in the neighbourhood was asked to keep an eye on her helps.”

With the domestic help, the great-aunt was a tyrant. When she did not eat, either because she was fasting or had no appetite, her help also got no food. If her tenants came over, the help was not allowed to talk. The great-aunt had cataracts that made her partially blind, so if she ever forgot where she had kept her money, it would be deducted from the help's salary, which was no more than QR500 (about USD140).

In 2005, the great-aunt broke her hip. Her first action was to move the help from the outhouse to the room under the stairs, suspicious that her maid, an attractive Indonesian woman in her 30s, would invite men over if not carefully monitored.

Ghareisa says her great-aunt, who now lives with her sister in Abu Dhabi, was not peculiar. “There are a lot of employers here who are too suspicious of their maids. They are concerned about their lives and belongings.”

Ghareisa’s great-aunt had no children and lived alone for almost two decades after her husband had passed away. Apart from the occasional visitor, it was just her and her help. Many of those visitors often commended her for her courage, but warned her about ‘wicked maids’. As the great-aunt could not trust her eyes, she gave her maid’s documents, including ID and health cards, to a male tenant for “safe-keeping.”

Housemaids are small-minded. If big-minded, she wouldn’t do this work.”

While it does not seem plausible that all domestic workers – most of whom are from South and Southeast Asia – are wont to be scheming, stereotypes about them are tenacious across most destination countries in Asia and particularly so in the GCC. In the 2014 report My Sleep is My break': Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Qatar, Amnesty International explores the endemic stereotyping of domestic workers in local media, which presents them as home wreckers, thieves, thugs, voodoo practitioners, and spiteful women who may abuse their employers’ children.  In a series of critiques on Migrants in the Media, also dissected these dangerous misconceptions of domestic workers in the Gulf.

More recently, spoke to a focus group of nine professional women, mostly academics, and many raised concerns about the possibility of female domestic workers eyeing their husbands up “because why wouldn’t they?” This presumptively accusatory, sexualized discourse is standard across the GCC,  serving to justify the normalized exploitation of domestic workers including: confinement to the house, confiscation of identity documents, delayed payment, infringement of privacy and excessive working hours.

Suad* says that employers in Qatar are quick to believe rumours about nefarious live-in helpers. This feeds into stereotypes and dehumanises female domestic helpers who may not have any malicious intentions. Suad remembers one rumour that was making the rounds when she was growing up. A domestic help had dropped a baby in a marble bath tub out of spite. While no one knew whose help that was, they quickly reasoned that if they pulled the reins in on their helps, they would be able to prevent such tragedies in their own homes. Suad says that while her family had no experience with such helps, they were nonetheless suspicious.

Domestic workers are disparaged across the region. According to a report released by Human Rights Watch in October 2014 detailing the abuse of female domestic workers in the UAE, employment agencies and employers do not value domestic workers or the work they do. HRW reported a recruitment agent saying, “Housemaids are small-minded. If big-minded, she wouldn’t do this work.” An employer of domestic workers reportedly said, “Domestic workers are like clay. You do whatever you want to do [to them].” HRW found that like in Qatar, domestic workers in the UAE are also subjected to long working hours, nonpayment of wages, and mental and physical torture.

In Kuwait, too, domestic workers are abused like their counterparts across the GCC. HRW released a report on human rights abuses of domestic workers in Kuwait in 2010, and it mentioned that in 2009, embassies of labour-sending countries in Kuwait City received over 10,000 calls from domestic workers complaining about long working hours, nonpayment of wages, and sexual, physical, and psychological torture. This was just the number of women who could report violations, and HRW suspected that there were many more who could seek no avenues for redress.

We pay a lot of money while hiring maids, and it’s not easy to find new ones. I think we worry that they will run away.”

Why confiscate passports?

Noor*, a young wife and mother, admits that she keeps the passports of her domestic employees. “Many of us don’t know that it’s illegal,” she says, “and many of us don’t realise that it’s wrong in general. We pay a lot of money while hiring maids, and it’s not easy to find new ones. I think we worry that they will run away.” The nine professional women in the focus group concurred with Noor; while not all of them had confiscated their employees’ passports, they nonetheless constantly worried that their employees would leave and that finding a replacement would be expensive.

Suad says that stereotypes and the supposed scarcity of “good maids” encourage some employers to confiscate travel documents and other identification papers of domestic helpers. Especially because of the fees and time associated with the recruitment process, employers do not want domestic helpers to be able to leave without fulfilling the terms of their contract; retaining their passport renders it’s nearly impossible for workers to make a smooth exit from the country.  Employers also confiscate identity documents to ‘safeguard’ against crime.  Although confiscating workers’ passports is illegal in Qatar, it is not generally a punishable offense. According to “A Portrait of Low-Income Migrants in Contemporary Qatar,” an article published in the Journal of Arabian Studies in June 2013, 90% of the 1000+ low-income workers interviewed were not in possession of their passports. Local law dictates that sponsors return passports after processing them but enforcement is lax in general, and non-existent when it comes to domestic workers; Amnesty International’s interviews indicate that employers confiscate passports without any fear of retribution.

The fear that domestic workers will “abscond” prevails throughout country, amongst authorities and employers alike.  In October 2014, local Qatari daily Gulf Times reported that the Search and Follow-up Department would open three more offices outside the city of Doha to deal with absconding workers. The report also noted a an ongoing government study to increase the penalties against  those who aid absconders. According the Ministry of Interior’s website, workers are required to uphold their labour contract and are not allowed to “abscond from the sponsor” or work for any other sponsor. Employers, similarly, are not allowed to lodge or employ “absconding” workers (those not under their sponsorship). Consequently, domestic workers are thrown into a state of despair, because they cannot escape abusive working conditions without being labelled a “runaway” and thrown into a detention centre. Unfortunately, little is being done to address reasons why domestic workers might want to escape.

No laws to protect DWs

Labour laws in Qatar provide no protection to domestic workers. In fact, Labour Act No. 3 explicitly states that its provisions do not apply to “persons employed as domestic help in private homes." While Qatar’s forced labour issues has come under intense scrutiny since it won the bit to host the World Cup 2022 , the country remains relatively silent on the question of domestic employees.  In March 2013, Hussein Al-Mulla, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Labour was quoted as saying, “since there is a contract signed between a maid and her employer, a law isn’t needed.” As a result, domestic workers are contractually bound to their employers, who can take advantage of the lack of legislation and breach the contract. For instance, in Amnesty International's 2014 report, a recruitment agency in Qatar was recorded as saying, "She will work full time and stay in your house...The contract would say eight hours, but you know, she is staying in your house. There is no need to give a day-off." Many of the female domestic workers interviewed in the report worked over 60 hours a week, one of the highest rates in the world according to the International Labour Organisation. It is worth noting, however, that Brig. Mohamed Ahmed Al-Atiq from the Ministry of Interior said that amendments to the labour law of Qatar were in the pipeline and would cover domestic workers too if they came into effect.

According to the HRW report on the UAE, laws in the country bind migrant workers to their employers through the kafala system like elsewhere in the region. Furthermore, like Qatar, UAE labour laws exclude domestic workers, leading to similar human rights violations as in Qatar at the hands of both recruitment agencies and employers. In Kuwait, too, labour laws do not offer any protection to domestic workers. According to HRW, neither Qatar nor any other GCC state voted in support of adopting a new protocol in June 2014 which a majority of ILO member states voted to approve to protect workers against forced labour, a crime common against domestic workers in the region.

The employer is also not entitled to a substitute worker if their worker “runs away.” Consequently, there is a similar pattern of abuse and confinement of domestic workers in the UAE.

Recruitment Woes

A South African resident and a mother of two paid QR12,500 (US$3,435) to hire a help from the Philippines. Another resident of Qatar says that he had to pay QR14,000 (US$3,846) as recruitment costs. He further says that it has become imperative to his family to ensure their helps do not leave, and he knows a few families that would go as far as withholding payment to ensure their employees stuck around until they got paid.

The price of hiring new domestic workers was the primary reason why Noor confiscated her employee’s passport. Chances that she will want to leave are slim if Noor has her passport and she cannot arrange for a ticket. “The agency is not very helpful in matters like this,” Noor adds. “If maids leave, we have to pay again for a new one, and this just goes on.” According to Amnesty International’s report on Qatar, employers have complained that recruitment agencies encourage domestic workers to “run away” only at the conclusion of their three-month probation. Then the agency will not have to provide a substitute worker free of charge, and the employer will once again have to pay exorbitant fees, which can vary between QR7,000 (US$1922) for Ethiopian nationals to QR13,500 (US$3,707) for Indonesian nationals. Thus, what spells trouble for employers and recruitment agencies is trouble for domestic workers as well: agencies ignore the abuse domestic workers may suffer during the probation period and employers take every measure to forcibly retain domestic workers beyond the probation period.

A Qatari single mother adds: “I don’t want to sound ruthless, but when we pay so much as recruitment fees we should have some surety that that fee will ensure the maid continues for the 2-year contract period. Most of them leave after 3 months, and neither they nor the agency is accountable, and we have to shell out another huge sum to secure another help. The government should make it simpler, and step in and help with recruitment process.”

Elsewhere in the GCC, recruitment costs are just as high. In the UAE, according to the recent HRW report, employers pay between Dh10,000 to 15,000 (US$2,500 to 4,000) to hire domestic workers. This figure is higher for non-nationals. In the UAE, too, employers complain that recruitment agencies encourage domestic workers to endure through the probation period, after which the employer is once again required to pay recruitment costs if the employee leaves. The employer is also not entitled to a substitute worker if their worker “runs away.” Consequently, there is a similar pattern of abuse and confinement of domestic workers in the UAE.

Alternatives to live-in help

Lubaba*, a non-Arab resident of Qatar retold a handful of bad experiences with live-in help, who mostly her family endlessly blamed for missing valuables. Friends encouraged their suspicions, telling them to be watchful because "even maids want to make some quick money." Eventually, Lubaba's family decided to solicit part-time help from migrants working other jobs in Qatar; From a Ugandan mosque cleaner to a Bangladeshi shopkeeper, they frequently received help with cooking and cleaning under informal (i.e. undocumented) arrangements.  Although less ‘chaotic’ than live-in help, part-time workers still require the family to adjust to strangers in their home. Freelance workers also tend to be more expensive and less regulated, and at one point, Lubaba's mother felt intimidated by the size of the help and could not give instructions around the house.

In October 2014, The Peninsula Qatar reported that manpower agencies requested permission from authorities to provide part-time and short-term domestic services. While such arrangements may help put suspicious minds at ease, the continuing exclusion of domestic workers from the labour law leaves them vulnerable to abuse, either at the hands of the employers or the manpower agencies.

Common GCC contract

On Nov 25, labor undersecretaries of the GCC agreed to key issues related to the a common domestic workers’ contract. The contract allows for a weekly day off with freedom of movement, eight-hour working day with not more than two hours of overtime and annual leave.

However, no timeline has been announced as to when this contract would be enforced.


*Names changed on request of interviewees