Working in a cleaning company is seen as a better prospect than working in a private home. Yet, hundreds of women travel to the Gulf to work as cleaners and find themselves in a situation as oppressive as that of domestic workers.
The last couple of years have seen a boom in cleaning companies in Qatar. Also referred to as maid services companies, they provide domestic work services by the hour for private residences. Some even arrange for live-in workers. On paper, this arrangement seems to benefit both worker and employer.
The employer does not have to pay steep recruitment fees or take the responsibility of housing a domestic worker. The worker, purportedly, has greater freedom than a ‘domestic worker’ and is covered by the labour law. They are eligible for an off day and maximum work hours and should have more agency over their free time.
But workers that Migrant-Rights.org spoke to have a different tale to tell.
A majority of the workers we spoke to were from the Philippines, and a few from Kenya and Ghana.
Lulu* has been here for nearly a year. She came to Qatar under the impression she would work in a hotel or office complex as a cleaner. She paid two months salary as placement fees and signed a contract that promised her QR1450.
Domestic workers recruited in the Philippines are exempted from placement fees. They do pay other informal fees, often by borrowing from loan sharks. However, Lulu was not recruited as a domestic worker, but as a cleaner, who would be covered under the labour law.
After coming to Qatar, her terms were revised. She was paid only QR1000 or USD 272, though the minimum wage for Filipino domestic workers is US$400, with no allowance for provisions. She is housed with four others and works 8-hour days excluding commute to and from work and between homes.
Marine* has been in Qatar for only two months, and on most days her supervisor drops in mid-shift to check on her.
Snatches of conversations with her over a few cleaning visits reveal a similar story.
Marine barely looks 18. She paid one month salary as placement fees, expecting to work in a hotel and be paid QR1200. “What can I do,” she smiles brightly. With an exaggerated move of the mop, she says “I now do this. And they pay me only 800. They deduct rest for food and accommodation.”
She has her ‘ates’ – which means ‘elder sister’ in Tagalog, and is a term of respect for elders – to give her comfort, but doesn’t really see an escape till she finishes her contract.
“Others have tried. But they have to pay a lot of money to the company to go back. So most will not renew the contract. Even my papers are not yet processed, still, I can’t go back.”
Not that Marine wants to go back right away. This is her first time abroad and she is eager to emulate the ‘success’ stories of the many Filipinas before her.
Her co-worker on the shift is from Kenya, and Marine’s chatter ceases abruptly as she enters the room.
On another occasion, Migrant-Rights.org spoke to the taciturn Kenyan worker. Imelda* doesn’t have the support system that her Filipina colleagues have. “I was promised QR1200 I get only 800. What to do? No one here to help me. So I will finish my contract and leave.”
She hasn’t even attempted to contact her embassy to seek redressal.
This first person account of a cleaner reiterates what these workers say.
It’s not just workers who have complaints. An employer, who prefers to remain anonymous, filed a formal complaint with the Philippines embassy through Migrant-Rights.org, highlighting the plight of the workers who were deployed to her home. Below is an excerpt from the complaint:
For two years (my friend and) I have been employing part-time cleaning staff on an hourly basis. I have employed seven cleaners over this time period. It's our understanding that 85-90 female staff are employed by Qatar Home Services – more than 80 are from the Philippines. All of them are housed in an 8 bedroom villa in Dafna.
The workers have a six-day working week with Friday being their day off. They are confined to the villa on Friday and are not allowed to dispose of the day as they wish. They are allowed a supervised (accompanied by the supervisor) visit to the store for 2 hours only. We have been told that the company enforces strict rules with regard to time out such as denying a worker the weekly trip to the store if she arrives 10 minutes or so later than the scheduled time. We were told further that the workers joined together and petitioned the head of the organisation requesting for a proper day off, but that the petition was ignored by him on the grounds that it was not signed by the immediate supervisor.
We feel obliged to bring this to the notice of the Philippines embassy primarily because a vast majority of the employees are Filipinas. (Any complaint to Qatar's Ministry of Interior has to be personally submitted by the aggrieved party. In this case, the workers will not file a complaint as they are not even in a position to venture out of the workspace to access services meant to guarantee their rights, and also face the possibility of being released from employment).
Secondly, it is clear that the employees have tried to help themselves out of this situation, reclaim their right instead of simply resigning themselves to it. Which makes it incumbent on civil society to make it known to authorities (in this case the Philippines embassy) to take necessary action/s to protect citizens.
Complaints on the rise
The Philippines Labour office in Qatar acknowledges that complaints from staff in cleaning companies are on the rise. At the same time, the demand for Filipino cleaners is also on the uptick. They say they have been enforcing very strict measures to verify manpower request applications from cleaning companies.
They have also endorsed workers’ complaints to the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration, under the Department of Labour and Employment in Manila, to initiate legal proceedings against companies and recruitment agents involved.
Recommendations have also been made to watchlist the companies. As it did when the employers raised the complaint above a couple of months ago. This means that job orders the cleaning company places to hire more workers from the Philippines will be suspended or not processed.
Unfortunately, it’s not foolproof, as the companies just bring in workers through another agency.
The majority of complaints are about contract substitution. They are promised QR1460 or QR1600 plus food. Then they come here and are given 800 or 1200 after deductions for food. Another frequent complaint is unpaid or delayed salaries.
The women in this sector are covered by the labour law, and hence by the Wage Protection System. Yet these deductions are not flagged.
Professor Ray Jureidini at the Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE), Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Doha, feels this is part of the limits of the Wage Protection System. “If workers do not get a payslip, they cannot verify allowances and deductions.”
Not the right job by law
The staff of cleaning (‘maid services’) companies are not supposed to perform domestic or household chores. They are only supposed to clean. Not other work considered household work.
Still, some openly advertise childcare and other household services on their site (see photo). At one of the focus group discussions conducted by our Bridges project, an employer said she had paid QR17,000 the agency, to transfer sponsorship of a cleaner in the company to her own. After a year’s delay, they were unable to do so. Instead, the worker remained under the agency’s sponsorship (as a live out part time cleaner), but lives in the employer’s residence under a live-out maid’s contract.
A majority of the workers in the cleaning companies are from the Philippines. That’s not to say other countries are not vying for this space.
Indonesia, for instance, has banned its female citizens from migrating for domestic work. In a meeting with manpower ministry in Jakarta, officials told Migrant-Rights.org that it plans to tap into the ‘cleaning sector’ to place its workers. However, they did not make a distinction between working in private households versus working in companies. “Even if they work in private household they will not live there, and this will protect them.”
Because companies are bringing in women as cleaners, the visas they hold have a huge market value. Our investigations reveal that there are two common visa violations taking place.
One, workers coming in on cleaners visa, that falls under the purview of the labour law, and then transfer it to domestic workers visa, which is excluded from the labour law, with little or no protection mechanisms at present.
As a result, agents and workers circumvent the strict pre-departure training and processes in place for domestic workers in many origin countries. And in Qatar, the women are taken from a relatively freer work environment and placed in private households, resulting in isolation.
The other violation is visa sale. Cleaning companies sell visas for anything between QR5000 to QR14,000. Workers pay this stiff fee and look for freelance employment in the hopes of earning more. This is the ‘free visa’ system that puts workers in danger of detention and deportation if caught.
The Philippines embassy confirms they receive several complaints on both issues.
Migrant-Rights.org reached out to the companies that employ some of these workers.
Jesna is the co-ordinator for Qatar Home Services company. She insists that there are no deductions and workers are paid what they were promised. “Because of some restrictions, we take them out ourselves. They don’t go out alone.”
She refused to comment on what those restrictions might be, directing me to her supervisor, who has not yet responded to our request for comments.
Scrubs, another company whose workers raised concerns, has not responded to our questions either.
Maids in Qatar Operation Manager Risalyn says workers are paid QR1600 plus a food allowance of QR300. None of the workers we spoke to verified this.
“Of course our workers can go out on their off days,” she says. “We provide transport to Church on Friday mornings and to the mall in the evenings.”
She does not reply immediately when asked what if the worker doesn’t want to be transported around. What if they want to go out alone, can they? Is there a curfew?
After a long pause, she says “They can. They have to be back by 10 p.m.”
Jureidini, who has also done extensive research on domestic workers in the region, says “Mobility and curfew is a major problem because the women in these cleaning companies are not allowed true free time - that is, without the control of supervision. This relates to gender discrimination and fears about sexuality as well as Qatari Islamic laws against premarital and extra-marital sexual relations.”
A company that contracts workers from the cleaning company did raise the issue of curfew and mobility to the contractor. “We framed it as equality. Male and female workers have to be treated the same. Guess what they did? They put a curfew for men too!” says an official of the company.
Running a cleaning service company seems to be more profitable than providing domestic worker recruitment services. Cleaning services companies charge between QR30 and QR40 per hour. Workers bill about 48 hours a week, not including overtime. The monthly billing is between QR6000 and QR8000.
The worker gets only around 15% of this as pay. While bottom lines dictate business decisions, shortchanging workers borders more on greed than on business sense.
*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of workers still in Qatar