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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.

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.

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.