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.
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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.

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.

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The case against TTIP

Let’s not weep for a US trade deal.

It was the sentence, we were assured, that torpedoed the referendum debate. Asked about Britain’s chances of securing a unilateral trade deal with the United States after leaving the EU, Barack Obama declared: “The UK is going to be in the back of the queue.”

The comment was catnip to the Remain side: the Brexiters have long conjured up the image of a newly divorced Britain taking her rightful place in the “Anglosphere” without the rest of the EU dragging us down. Instead, the US president was telling us, we would be left out in the cold.

But here’s a question for you: what’s so great about a US trade deal, anyway? For the past three years, the acronym “TTIP” has been floating across my vision. I’ve always had the sense it was a Bad Thing, without ever really understanding why. So what is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and should we be against it?

My first port of call is my nerdiest friend. “The first rule of TTIP is, anyone who thinks TTIP matters is a douche,” he tells me briskly. It’s safe to say that’s very much not the opinion of Mark Dearn, a senior trade campaigner at War on Want, who gives me a quick run-through of why the agreement has attracted such widespread protests, including a march by 150,000 people in Berlin last October.

“It’s the biggest trade deal in the history of the world,” he says. “It’s negotiated in secret: all the EU currently publishes is its offers. They don’t publish the US offers and they don’t publish the consolidated text – the legally binding documents.”

Such secrecy – which is, to be fair, not unusual in delicate negotiations – does make TTIP look sinister. Very few people are allowed to see the full set of documents, and they must do so in special reading rooms, after signing a non-disclosure agreement and handing over their electronic devices.

There are two areas that particularly alarm campaigners: food and health care. Last year, Alan Beattie of the FT summarised the objections as fears that TTIP will “gut public health-care systems and force American Frankenfoods down European gullets”.

War on Want’s Mark Dearn echoes this, and suggests that removing barriers to trade – the stated aim of TTIP – will lead to Europe lowering its food hygiene and additive standards to match those of the US.

“Eighty per cent of US beef is full of growth hormones or antibiotics that are banned in the EU,” Dearn says. “Forty per cent of US grain uses banned pesticides.” The US also permits “acid washing” of meat to remove contamination. “The EU views that as a form of moral hazard; it makes you think it doesn’t matter what you do [in the factory] up to that point, because you’re killing microbes at the end.”

Many campaigners also want the NHS exempted from TTIP. They worry its provisions on “indirect expropriation” will encourage private companies to sue governments for restricting their ability to do business. That could penalise any state that nationalised a failing industry or cancelled a planned project. Or, perhaps, ran a public health service.

The National Health Action Party has warned that TTIP could deliver a “fatal blow to the NHS”. I ask the party’s campaign manager, Deborah Harrington, what changes patients will experience if TTIP is implemented. “Nothing,” she answers, to my surprise. “But people don’t notice what’s different now, because it’s all behind the NHS logo. It will take people time to realise how the private sector has reshaped the NHS. There’s no big bang.”

Finally, I call the Adam Smith Institute, the country’s best-known libertarian think tank, reasoning that if they’re for it, then I’m probably against it. The ASI’s executive director, Sam Bowman, confirms that he backs TTIP in principle, “although it’s hard trying to predict what’s in an agreement we haven’t seen”. He tells me that the picture of the US as a food hygiene Wild West is not completely accurate: American producers can’t label beef from cows fed antibiotics as organic, for example, but Europeans can. He also doesn’t find the acid-washing of meat as alarming as it sounds. “It sounds gross – basically you’re dipping a chicken in swimming- pool water – but it’s done to comply with antimicrobial laws. And in the US, people find the idea of unpasteurised cheese horrifying.”

Bowman believes that TTIP, like the European single market, will increase GDP by increasing trade. He points out that the UK parliament will get a veto on the final text, and worries that campaigners “are taking the lack of transparency as an excuse to promote a conspiracy theory – that EU governments are colluding to deregulate”. He laughs. “As a libertarian, I wish that were true.”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism