‘They look at you as a slave’: Inside the hidden lives of Qatar’s domestic workers

Dolores* gets up at 5am to begin her 19-hour day as a domestic worker in Qatar. She cleans the living room and prepares lunch boxes for her employer’s children. When they go to school, she cleans their rooms. “Then after that, I’m washing clothes, ironing, cooking, helping my colleagues in the kitchen,” she says.

She has spent the past five years working in the Gulf nation – the first three for a family that made her work seven days a week. She explains: “They are just looking at you as a slave”.

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In the clamour that has surrounded the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which begins next week, much attention has been devoted to the welfare of low-paid construction workers. Human rights groups and the media have exposed a host of problems, ranging from heat stress and poor accommodation to unsafe working conditions and unexplained deaths.

But the domestic workers who have played an equally important role in keeping the country running in the years leading up to the contest are largely overlooked. These workers, mostly female, face just as many problems as their peers in the construction sector; sometimes more.

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A worker walks along a marina in Doha on October 23, 2022, ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)
A worker walks along a marina in Doha ahead of the World Cup (Photo: Jewel SAMAD / AFP)

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In 2019, there were more than 176,000 officially registered domestic workers in Qatar. Often referred to as “maids”, they run the homes of middle- and upper-class migrants, as well as the homes of many locals. Their tasks include cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Most domestic workers live with their host family. But some are sponsored by agencies and are housed in compounds, the conditions of which are often squalid. A campaigner for workers’ rights once showed me a video of a room in a villa housing 80 domestic workers. The floorspace was dominated by beds, while a woman clearly suffering with her mental health paced back and forth in the small space that remained.

The nature of domestic work – taking place out of sight in private homes – means workers are among the most vulnerable of Qatar’s migrants. Testimony from domestic workers paints a picture of long hours, stress, frequent contravention of rights and even sexual exploitation and assault. Salaries for domestic work are often lower than those in the construction sector. When Dolores first arrived, she was paid 1000 rials a month – about £240.

The unique demographics of Qatar, where only 11 per cent of the population are Qatari nationals, means that the majority of domestic workers are employed by Europeans, South Asians or Arabs, working in professional jobs as office workers, managers or consultants. Cheap domestic labour is seen as one of the “perks” of living in Doha – the kind of help that few could afford back home in London, New York or Paris.

The frequent poor treatment doled out to domestic workers is not confined to any particular nationality. Dolores reported being hit and slapped by the children of her first sponsor, who was Qatari. On one occasion, their mother threw a slipper at her. Another domestic worker, Mary* from Kenya, told me how her Lebanese employer would prevent her from attending church. A further woman from Kenya, Maggie*, spoke of the racism she received from the children of her New Zealand employer: “They would tell you, ‘Don’t come close to me! We are not the same colour!’”

The scrutiny of being a World Cup host has led to improvements. In 2017, as part of an overhaul of Qatar’s labour laws, the government passed a domestic workers law that attempted to establish rights, including a day off a week, regular payment of salaries, and annual leave. The International Labour Organisation set up a field office in the country. Workers have become more cognisant of their rights – Dolores managed to leave her abusive first employer and find a new sponsor who pays her more and gives her a day off. NGOs, however, report that overall implementation is so weak that such laws have in practice failed to protect many workers. It is also unclear whether the positive trajectory will continue after the World Cup.

Amid all the criticism of Qatar, there has been inadequate discussion of the broader global poverty that compels workers into migrating to the Gulf. Lack of opportunities in the Philippines compelled Dolores to leave behind her young daughter with her parents and journey to Qatar. “Every day you want to hug her, every day you want to see her. Of course, it’s really hard for me. She’s growing up without me,” she says. And yet she plans to continue in Qatar because it allows her to send home 500 rials – about £120 – each month. Like many, she feels she has no other option.

John McManus is the author of Inside Qatar: Hidden Stories From One of the Richest Nations on Earth

*All names are pseudonyms at the womens’ request

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