A woman in the Philippines on a housekeeping training course. An estimated 100,000 women from the Philippines work as domestic workers overseas, and many are vulnerable to abuse. Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

Abuse of women domestic workers in Qatar exposes uncomfortable truths closer to home

A new report from Amnesty International describes how domestic workers in Qatar face abuse and exploitation. The problem isn't just limited to Qatar, however: domestic workers in the UK are similarly vulnerable.

After the controversy surrounding the deaths of construction workers in Qatar, the oil-rich micro-state’s treatment of foreign workers is once again in the spotlight over its mistreatment of migrant labourers. Today Amnesty International has published a report detailing the mistreatment of the  84,000 women, mostly from south and south-east Asia, who are employed to clean the homes and look after the children of wealthy Qataris and expats – a considerable number in a country of just over 2 million people.

Some of the women interviewed by Amnesty have been forced to work over 100 hours a week with no days off, have been subject to sexual and physical violence and have had their pay cut. Domestic workers who are abused have little recourse to justice: under the country’s sponsorship system (known as kafala) they cannot leave their jobs or the country without their employer’s permission – and those who choose to run away from abusive employers risk being detained or deported.

Nor is it easy to report mistreatment. Those who report sexual abuse can be charged with “illicit relations” and face a year in prison followed by deportation, and those who complain of long working hours will face no legal protection:  Qatari law places no restrictions on the amount of hours domestic workers can be asked to work, and there is no requirement that they have a day off.

Although the report focuses on Qatar, it’s worth remembering that the same problem exists elsewhere. According to Human Rights Watch there are around 53 million domestic workers worldwide and “they are among the most exploited and abused workers in the world”. The rights of domestic workers is a global women's rights issue, and one that still doesn't receive enough attention.

One country in which domestic workers are especially vulnerable is the UK. A Human Rights Watch report published in March this year found evidence of some domestic workers in the UK having their passports confiscated, having their pay cut or even stopped altogether and being forced to work 18-hour days, seven days a week.

Each year, the UK hands out 15,000 visas to domestic workers, mainly from Asia and Africa, who arrive in the UK with their employers.  Since 2012, these have been “tied visas” which means that domestic workers seeking to leave their jobs lose their right to remain in the country: either they must return to their home country or they will find themselves staying in the UK illegally. Those who run away from abusive employers face high barriers to seeking legal redress: their immigration status might make them fearful of going to the police, and cuts to legal aid means many will struggle to find legal representation. A government commitment to cut immigration has inadvertently created conditions for domestic workers that isn’t too dissimilar from Qatar’s “kafala” system.

On top of that, the UK is also one of only nine countries that did not sign the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Workers Convention which came into force in September 2013 and grants domestic workers the same rights as other workers.  And, domestic workers whose employers are diplomats are even more vulnerable, as their employers are shielded by diplomatic immunity.

To offer better protection for these vulnerable workers, Human Rights Watch has called on the UK to change its visa rules, to sign up to the ILO's domestic workers convention and to ensure that domestic workers entering the UK are fully aware of their rights. 

It’s easy to point a finger at Qatar’s human rights abuses – and the issues Amnesty International has raised are very important – but this also means we need to face up to some uncomfortable truths closer to home, something that many find altogether more difficult.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

STF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Must I unremember the day I wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man?

At that time we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

The misremembering of history interrupts these tales of my own squalid past. Very often I find myself wishing my memories were wrong, or that I’d forgotten more than I have. This would certainly be the case were I to be a politician, albeit a small-time one in big-time government. In the era of renunciations and sincere apologies, I would have to say sorry most of the time.

But I can’t. I can’t get past that clear day in May 1981, when the tangy cold spring air of a New York day got right inside me. Ambling home from another long, messy night in the Village, I was near 52nd when I saw people carrying a coffin.

“It’s not him, of course. It’s a fake coffin,” said a woman who saw the shock on my face. Maybe I was already crying. I knew and didn’t know but asked anyway.

“Yes. Bobby.”

Bobby Sands had died. Crowds were gathering with banners about Smashing Long Kesh and Smashing Thatcher.

The shock of it has never left me and God knows “martyrs” come two a penny now. Yet the idea that someone can starve themselves slowly to death for an idea is shocking. The idea that someone can let them do it, either “for” a United Ireland or “for” a United Kingdom, remains profoundly disturbing to me.

I need no lectures about what vile and murderous bastards the IRA were, or the numbers of innocents they killed. Nor about the smeary sentimentality of martyrdom itself. All I can say is that I had little idea of what “we” did in Ireland as long as I lived in England. A boy at school had run off to join the IRA. My mum said, “Well, he’s always been tapped, that one.”

We were kept ignorant. For some stupid reason, I did not think that Thatcher would let the hunger strikers die.

Their demands, remember, were the right not to wear prison uniform or to do prison work, rights to free association and education within the prison, one visit, one parcel, one letter a week. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher said Sands had no mandate. He was actually an MP, with more votes than she ever won in Finchley.

In New York that day, when we got to Third Avenue, there was anger and then solemnity. There were mumblings about what a death like that entailed . . . Mandela then instigated a hunger strike on Robben Island. There were protests in Milan and Ghent. French towns would name streets after Sands.

At that time, though, yes, we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

So, must I unremember that day when I sat down on the pavement and wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man? Let me know how to uncry all those tears shed for that terrible, terrible waste.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide