Qatar’s human rights record is under scrutiny as the World Cup takes place in Doha. Much has been written about the treatment of migrant workers who built stadiums and hotels, but what about the foreign maids who work for the Qatari ruling classes? Megha Mohan, the BBC’s gender and identity correspondent, talks to the two about living long hours with no days off.
I make contact with Gladys (not her real name) late at night, after her Qatari elite employers have gone to bed.
In a short online chat, she told me that she works every day from 8am to 11pm. She cleans, helps prepare meals and takes care of the children.
She eats leftovers from family meals and says she hasn’t had a day off since she started 18 months ago.
“Madame is crazy,” Gladys, a Filipina in her 40s, says of her employer. “She yells at me every day.”
Before Qatar was designated to host the 2022 World Cup, foreign workers could not change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s permission. This is still the case in most Gulf states.
Under supervision, Qatar has begun to introduce reforms, but they are not always implemented in practice.
For example, Gladys’ employer kept her passport. If she asked for it back to leave, she wouldn’t be sure that she would get it.
But Gladys still feels happy. At least she was allowed to keep her phone, she said, unlike other foreign servants. Moreover, she was not physically abused. In Qatar, this happens all too often to servants, she says.
There is another reason why she wants to stay in her current job: she thinks that at her age she will hardly get a better one. She earns 1,500 riyals a month (just under 265,934 F CFA) and can send all the money home to support her family.
Rights of domestic workers
- There are an estimated 160,000 domestic workers in Qatar, according to data from the Qatari Planning and Statistics Authority for 2021.
- In 2017, Qatar introduced the Domestic Workers Law, which theoretically limits working hours to 10 hours a day and requires daily breaks, a weekly day off and paid holidays…
- In 2020, he also introduced a minimum wage and gave workers the right, on paper, to change jobs or leave the country without asking for permission.
- However, according to Amnesty International, these laws are not always respected and extreme overwork, lack of rest and abusive and degrading treatment continue.
Joanna Concepcion of Migrante International, a local organization that supports Filipino workers abroad, says many of them keep quiet about poor working conditions because their top priority is earning money for their jobs.
But when workers in Gulf countries feel safe enough to speak out, they often report serious abuses. One woman said that her employer would stick her head in the toilet bowl and deny her food and water when he was angry.
Althea (not even her real name) paints a very different picture of her life as a maid in Qatar. Employed by the Al Thani royal family, she video calls to the BBC from the basement of the royal residence.
Smiling and lively, she explains that they gave her an iPhone, clothes, jewelry and shoes that she couldn’t afford back home in the Philippines.
As in the case of Gladys, it was the difficulty of making a living at home that brought her here.
As we talk, other Filipino domestic workers, who share a large room in Althea’s quarters, greet us and join us.
They have their own rooms and a private kitchen. It is important. The servants Althea sees on TikTok and Facebook begging for food and begging for someone to save them are not so lucky.
“I keep watching these videos online, which makes me feel so happy,” she says. “Every day seems like a fairy tale to me.”
Still, it’s hard work in these “Cinderella Palaces,” as she calls them, with high ceilings and chandeliers, gold-encrusted antiques, mother-of-pearl tablecloths and fresh-cut flowers.
The workday usually begins at 6:30 a.m., when the staff prepares breakfast for the family. Althea eats when the family is done. After clearing the rooms, they clean the rooms and prepare the midday meal.
“It’s an easy job because there are so many of us,” says Althea.
The maids rest in their suites between 3 and 6 p.m. and then prepare for dinner. After dinner is over, Althea has finished her work and is free to leave the property if she chooses.
The royal family does not keep its passport. But Althea works every day, including weekends. She does not get the day off that Qatari law is now supposed to guarantee, unless the employee decides to give it up. This is the price she pays to provide her family with vital financial support.
Mary Grace Morales, a Manila-based recruiter who connects Filipino staff with Gulf VIPs, says working at the palace is an “enviable” job.
“There are many benefits. The family is generous,” she says. And, in a comment that reflects the difficulties the servants may have faced at home, she adds: “The girls get fat when they are in the palace. The family feeds them well.”
But royals have very specific requirements, she reveals.
“The girls who are sent to work for the Qatari royal family are between 24 and 35 years old and very beautiful,” says Morales.
She pauses to stare at the screen where I’m staring at her from BBC headquarters in London.
“Prettier than you,” she said, smiling.
She then sends a WhatsApp message apologizing because her children overheard her and said she was rude. I assure him that I’m not offended – and I don’t tell him that hiring people based on their appearance would be illegal in many countries.
“Candidates should be young, because the Qatari royal family needs very energetic and healthy people who can handle the busy environment of the palace.
“And candidates have to be beautiful—very beautiful,” she reiterates.
Migrante International’s Joanna Concepcion hopes Althea’s account of working as a royal maid is true, but adds: “It’s unlikely we can know for sure while she’s still in Qatar working for such a powerful family.”
Some royal officials complained after leaving the country. In 2019, three British and American workers – a bodyguard, a personal trainer and a private tutor – sued the Emir’s sister, Sheikha al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and her husband, alleging they were forced to work long hours without overtime. The family denied the charges and requested diplomatic immunity, and the documents were served in New York.
“Reporting and dealing with cases of violence and harassment, lack of occupational safety and health and lack of decent accommodation can be difficult,” says Ruba Jaradat, the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) regional director for Arab states.
The ILO says it is working with Qatar to implement new rules guaranteeing a minimum wage, one day off a week, sick leave and overtime pay, although this remains a “challenge”.
Althea, in her royal palace, says she is happy despite the long hours.
When she goes to bed, she texts one of her siblings or one of her parents in the Philippines. He often feels homesick: a fairytale palace is not home.
However, it is still a key source of income.
“I could never support my family without this job,” she says.
The BBC sought comment from the Qatari royal family and the Qatari embassy in London, but did not receive a response.
Illustrations by Marta Klawa Rzeczy