DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – An international human rights group has slammed Qatar for failing to protect foreign maids and other domestic workers from exploitation, adding pressure on the Gulf state over its labor practices as it gears up to host the 2022 World Cup.
Amnesty International said in a report released Wednesday that the migrant workers in the natural gas-rich country face abuse including forced labor, excessively long working hours, verbal harassment and physical and sexual violence.
Its researchers spoke to women who reported working as many as 100 hours per week with no days off, and others who were banned from leaving the house altogether.
Like millions of other migrant workers in the region, their residency in the country is tied to their employers through a sponsorship system that stops workers from easily changing jobs.
"Women who find themselves in abusive households face utterly miserable conditions," Audrey Gaughran, the group's global issues director, said in a statement. "They have few options — if they choose to simply to get out of the house, they will be branded 'runaways' and are likely to end up being detained and deported."
OPEC member Qatar has come under increasing fire over its treatment of foreign workers, particularly those working in a booming construction industry raising plush villas and cutting-edge skyscrapers from the sand. It has tried to allay those concerns by outlining how employers must protect workers' rights.
Domestic workers are not covered under Qatar's standard labor law. There are no legal limits to how long they can work or mandates that they be given a day off, according to Amnesty.
The group published a report in November cataloging alleged human rights abuses. Researcher James Lynch said it decided to issue a separate one focused on domestic workers because "it is important they are not a footnote to the issues that construction workers face."
At least 84,000 foreign female domestic workers are employed in Qatar, most of them from the countries of South and Southeast Asia, according to Amnesty.
A report last year by the International Labor Organization found that domestic workers in Qatar work an average of 60 hours a week — more than in all but four other countries.
Qatari government officials could not immediately be reached for comment on Amnesty's latest report. The chairman of the country's National Human Rights Committee declined to comment and referred questions to government ministries.
A statement from the ministry of foreign affairs sent to Amnesty did, however, seek to make clear that legal safeguards exist.
"The exclusion of this group of workers from the scope of the Labor Law does not mean a lack of legal protection for their rights or that there is no law to protect these rights," the statement said.
Qatari laws spell out steps that must be followed during recruitment, ensure that domestic workers are not misled during the process, and provide for the resolution of disputes between workers and their sponsors, according to the government statement.
It said a draft law related to household workers is being studied. No decision has been taken to implement that legislation yet.
Other countries in the oil-rich Gulf, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have also faced criticism over their treatment of migrant workers.
While there are concerns about domestic workers in other Gulf states too, Lynch said it is important that Qatar address its labor shortcomings given the credit it is getting as a regional leader in the wake of its successful World Cup bid.
"We think that Qatar should be leading the way because it's in the spotlight and it is going to remain in the spotlight," he said.
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