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 much less about the foreign maids who work for Qatar’s ruling classes. On paper their rights have been strengthened in recent years – but the new rules aren’t always followed.
I make contact with Gladys (not her real name) late at night, after her employers from the Qatari elite have gone to bed.
In a 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 she 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, foreign workers were unable 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 of abuses faced by domestic workers.
For example, Gladys’s employer has held on to her 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 is 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 from Qatar’s Planning and Statistics Authority
- In 2017 Qatar introduced the Domestic Workers Law, which limits working hours to 10 hours a day, 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 families is their overriding priority.
But when those in Gulf states do feel confident enough to talk freely, she says, they often mention serious abuse. One woman said her employer would push her head into a toilet basin and deny her 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 workers now should under the new rules.
Smiley and animated, Althea (not her real name) video calls the BBC from the basement of a royal residence. She explains that her employers have given her an iPhone, clothes, jewellery and shoes of a kind she couldn’t afford back home in the Philippines.
As in Gladys’s case, it’s the difficulty of 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 for food, and pleading for 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, when staff prepare breakfast for the family. Althea eats once the family has finished. After clearing away, they clean the rooms and set places for lunch.
“It is light work because there are many of us,” Althea says.
Maids rest in their flats between 3pm and 6pm, then prepare for dinner. Once dinner is over, Althea has finished work, and is free to leave the compound if she wants.
The royal family doesn’t hold on to her passport. But Althea does work every day, including weekends. She doesn’t get the day off that Qatari law is now supposed to guarantee. It’s a price she 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, says working for the palace is an “enviable” job.
“The family is generous,” she says. And, in a comment reflecting the hardships the maids may have faced at home, she adds: “The girls get fatter while they are in the palace. The family feeds 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 and very pretty,” Ms Morales says.
She pauses to look at the screen where I stare back at 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 she 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 for certain while she is still in Qatar and working for such a powerful family.”
Some royal staff have 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 her 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 of violence and harassment, lack of occupational safety and 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 is working with Qatar to implement the new rules guaranteeing a minimum wage, a day 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 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 and the Qatari embassy in London to comment, but received no reply.
Illustrations by Marta Klawe Rzeczy