By Jonathan Lahdo
Jonathan Lahdo is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania studying business and international studies.
As a region, the Middle East often finds itself under scrutiny due to human rights abuses that span the entire spectrum, from well-known examples like censorship and restrictions on freedom of speech to some that are less prominent from the rest of the world’s perspective.
The Gulf Emirate of Qatar is a pertinent example in recent history of a Middle Eastern state in which human rights abuses that had previously been ignored by most mainstream media outlets were brought to the surface. Namely, the issue was the treatment of migrant labourers working on the construction of the stadium for the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar. At least 1,200 migrant workers died during the three years after Qatar was awarded the World Cup bid.  This highlights the lack of action being taken on the part of the Qatari government to protect these migrant workers that are exploited by their employers, often forced to live in squalid conditions and have their wages withheld and passports confiscated. 
Despite a large proportion of issues regarding human rights abuses with migrant workers in Qatar and the Gulf region in general affecting labourers on construction sites, there is another significant sector of that population whose issues are frequently absent from public discussion: domestic workers.
The concept of having live-in help is foreign to many people living in modern Western societies, conjuring up either images of obscene wealth or discomfort with the idea of a stranger living at home. The practice is common, however, across the Middle East, often irrespective of socioeconomic status, and has thus been normalised in Middle Eastern culture.
The concept of having live-in help is foreign to many people living in modern Western societies, conjuring up either images of obscene wealth or discomfort with the idea of a stranger living at home. The practice is common, however, across the Middle East, often irrespective of socio-economic status, and has thus been normalised in Middle Eastern culture. Global labour statistics support this cultural trend, with domestic workers of both sexes constituting a share of the region’s total employment seven times larger than that within the labour markets of developed countries. 
A significant number of these domestic workers, who tend to be women of low socioeconomic backgrounds largely from South and Southeast Asia, are grossly mistreated by their employers and have been victims of various human rights abuses. 
The primary human rights violations that these domestic workers have been subject to are driven by both a lack of legislation and laws that are unfairly used against them. For example, in Qatar, “whoever copulates with a female over sixteen without compulsion, duress or ruse knowing that he is prohibited to marry her for permanent or temporary reasons shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding fifteen years shall apply to any person. The same penalty shall apply to a female who accepts such copulation knowing that it is prohibited.”  The illegality of extramarital sexual intercourse in Qatar has led to domestic workers not pressing charges against their employers for sexual harassment or violation, and those that do are occasionally deported while no charges are filed against their employers. Additionally, domestic workers do not have the right to join a workers’ union or to strike, effectively denying them the ability to maintain and protect their own rights. Furthermore, the government-set standards on occupational health and safety do not apply to domestic workers; they often face unacceptable working conditions such as seven-day work weeks of more than 12 hours per day with few or no holidays, no overtime pay, and no effective means to redress grievances. 
The anecdotes of some domestic workers in Qatar only further bolster the horrific realities presented by Qatari legislation and the U.S. State Department report. Some women interviewed for an independent report said that they had been “slapped, pulled by the hair, poked in the eyes, and kicked down the stairs by their employers,” while three reported being raped; some told the campaign group that they “were threatened with physical violence when they told their employers they wanted to leave” and some worked “up to 100 hours a week with no days off.” One of the most salient points of the discussion taking place surrounding the issue, however, was Amnesty International releasing a separate report focusing on domestic workers to ensure they were not a “footnote to the issues construction workers face,” given that it has historically been an underreported topic. 
The contributions of Amnesty International and other organisations in reporting on the subject of domestic workers’ rights in Qatar have clearly created some form of impact, as the State Cabinet of Qatar recently approved a draft law related to domestic workers’ rights. On February 8, the Qatari government proposed a law that aims to regulate various aspects of domestic help work, such as specifying working hours and holidays, strengthening their rights and liabilities, in addition to regulating the transfer of their salaries to their bank accounts. 
Still, the law remains in the proposal stage, and does not speak to many other abuses faced by domestic workers. In their latest report on the matter, Amnesty International mentions that a similar law was drafted in 2012 but soon shelved, and also requests that the Qatari government include more specific details in the bill giving domestic workers the ability to lodge complaints as well as detailing how employers should be required to provide safe, sanitary accommodations and medical care to the domestic workers that they employ. 
In general, the topic of domestic workers’ abuse in Qatar remains a contentious issue, though the approval of this new draft law is a promising sign that tangible outcomes for these affected workers as well as for the general state of human rights in the Middle East are an increasingly likely possibility.
 “The Case Against Qatar”. International Trade Union Confederation. 16th March, 2014. Accessed 18th February, 2017. http://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/the_case_against_qatar_en_web170314.pdf
 Owen Gibson. “Migrant workers suffer 'appalling treatment' in Qatar World Cup stadiums, says Amnesty.” The Guardian. 30th March, 2016. Accessed 18th February, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/mar/31/migrant-workers-suffer-appalling-treatment-in-qatar-world-cup-stadiums-says-amnesty
 “Domestic workers across the world: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection.” International Labour Office, Geneva. 2013. Accessed 18th February 2017.
 “Qatar criticised for domestic workers abuse”. Al Jazeera. 23rd April, 2014. Accessed 18th February 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/04/qatar-failing-protect-household-workers-201442302859927674.html
 Law No. 11 of 2004 Issuing the Penal Code, Art. 282. 10th May 2004. Accessed 18th February 2017. http://www.almeezan.qa/LawArticles.aspx?LawTreeSectionID=255&lawId=26&language=en
 “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015: Qatar”. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State. 2015. Accessed 18th February, 2017. https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm?year=2015&dlid=252943#wrapper
 “Draft law on domestic workers approved”. Zawya. 9th February, 2017. Accessed 18th February, 2017. https://www.zawya.com/mena/en/legal/story/Qatar_Cabinet_approves_draft_law_on_domestic_workers-ZAWYA20170210050507/
 “QATAR - PROPOSED DOMESTIC WORKERS LAW MUST PROTECT HUMAN RIGHTS AND PREVENT ABUSE”. Amnesty International. 15th February, 2017. Accessed 18th February, 2017. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde22/5721/2017/en/
Photo Credit: Mohammed Zuber Shaikh
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