Qatar’s human rights record is under scrutiny as the World Cup takes place in Doha. A lot has been written about the treatment of migrant workers who built the stadiums and hotels, but what about the foreign maids who work for Qatar’s ruling classes? BBC gender and identity correspondent Megha Mohan speaks to two about a life of long hours without days off.
I make contact with Gladys (not her real name) late at night, after her employers from the Qatari elite have gone to bed.
In the brief online conversation she tells me she works from 8am to 11pm every day. She cleans, helps prepare food and looks after the children.
She eats what’s left from the family’s meals, and says the girl hasn’t had a day off since she started 18 months ago.
“Madam is crazy, ” Gladys, a Filipina woman in her 40s, says about her employer. “She shouts at me every day. ”
Before Qatar won the competition to host the 2022 World Cup, international workers were unable in order to change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s permission. It’s still like this in most Gulf states.
Under scrutiny, Qatar began to introduce reforms, but Amnesty International says these have failed to end a pattern associated with abuses faced by domestic workers.
For example, Gladys’s employer has held on to the girl passport, preventing her from leaving without his consent.
But Gladys still feels lucky. At least she has been allowed to keep her phone, she says, unlike some other foreign maids. Also, she is not physically abused. In Qatar, this happens all too often, she says.
There is another reason she wants to stay in her current job – she thinks it’s unlikely at her age that she will get a better one. She earns 1, 500 rials a month (just under £350) and will be able to send it all home to support her family.
Domestic workers’ rights
- There are an estimated 160, 000 foreign domestic workers in Qatar, according to 2021 data through Qatar’s Planning and Statistics Authority
- In 2017 Qatar introduced the particular Domestic Workers Law, which limits working hours in order to 10 hours a day time, and requires daily breaks, a weekly day off and paid holidays
- In 2020 it also introduced a minimum wage and gave workers the right on paper to change jobs or leave the country without seeking permission
- However, Amnesty International says these laws have not been properly implemented or enforced and extreme overwork, lack of rest, and abusive and degrading treatment continue
Joanna Concepcion of Migrante International, a grassroots organisation supporting Filipino overseas workers, says that many keep quiet about bad working conditions because earning money for their own families is their overriding priority.
But when those in Gulf states do feel confident enough to talk freely, the lady says, they often mention serious abuse. One woman said her employer would push her head into a toilet basin and deny the girl food and water when he was angry.
By contrast, a maid employed by the ruling royal Al Thani family, says she is treated well – but she has no day off, as all employees now should under the new rules.
Smiley and animated, Althea (not her real name) video calls the particular BBC from your basement of a royal residence. She explains that her companies have given her an iPhone, clothes, jewellery plus shoes of a kind she couldn’t afford back home in the Philippines.
As in Gladys’s case, it’s the difficulty associated with earning a living wage at home that has brought her here.
As we speak, other Filipino domestic workers, who share a large room in Althea’s living quarters, say Hi and join the call.
They have their own bedrooms and a shared kitchen. This is important. The maids Althea sees on TikTok and Facebook begging with regard to food, and pleading regarding someone to rescue them, are not as fortunate.
“I see those videos online all the time, which is why I feel so lucky, ” she says. “For me, every day feels like a fairy tale. ”
Nonetheless, it’s hard work in these “Cinderella palaces” as she refers to them, with their high ceilings and chandeliers, antiques inlaid with gold, mother-of-pearl table tops, and freshly cut flowers.
The day generally begins at 6. 30am, whenever staff prepare breakfast intended for the family. Althea feeds on once the family has finished. After clearing away, they clean the rooms plus set places for lunch.
“It is light work because there are many of us, inch Althea says.
Maids rest in their particular flats between 3pm and 6pm, then prepare for dinner. Once dinner is over, Althea has finished work, and is free to keep the compound if she wants.
The particular royal family doesn’t hold on to her passport. But Althea does work every day, including weekends. The girl doesn’t get the day time off that Qatari law is now supposed to guarantee. It’s a price the girl pays for providing her family with vital financial support.
Mary Grace Morales, a recruiter in Manila who pairs Filipino staff with VIPs in the Gulf, states working for the palace is usually an “enviable” job.
“The family is definitely generous, ” she states. And, in a comment reflecting the hardships the service personnel may have faced in home, she adds: “The girls get fatter while they are in the particular palace. The family feeds all of them well. ”
But the royals have some very specific requirements, she reveals.
“The girls sent to work for the Qatari royal family are between 24 and 35 plus very pretty, ” Ms Morales says.
She pauses to look at the screen where I stare back from her from the BBC headquarters in London.
“Prettier than you, ” she says, smiling.
She later sends a WhatsApp to apologise, as her children overheard and said the lady had been rude. I assure her I was not offended – and don’t mention that hiring people on the basis of their looks would be illegal in many countries.
Joanna Concepcion, of Migrante International, says she hopes Althea’s account of working as a royal maid is true, but adds: “It’s unlikely that we can know that to get certain while she actually is still in Qatar and functioning for such a powerful family. ”
Some royal staff possess complained after leaving the country. In 2019 three British and American workers – a bodyguard, personal trainer and private tutor – sued the emir’s sister, Sheikha al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and the girl husband, in New York, alleging that they had been made to work long hours without overtime. The couple denied the allegations and settled without any admission of liability.
“Reporting and addressing cases associated with violence and harassment, lack of occupational safety plus health, and lack of decent accommodation can be challenging, ” says International Labour Organization (ILO) regional director for Arab states, Ruba Jaradat.
The ILO says it can be working with Qatar to implement the new rules guaranteeing the minimum wage, a time off each week, sick leave and overtime payments, although this remains “a challenge”.
Althea, in her royal palace, says she is happy despite the long hours.
When she goes to bed she will message one of her siblings or parents in the Philippines. She often feels homesick – a fairytale palace is not really home.
However, it remains a crucial source of income.
“I could never support my family without this job, ” she says.
The BBC asked the Qatari royal family members and the Qatari embassy in London to comment, but received no reply.
Illustrations by Marta Klawe Rzeczy