the precarious routine of a maid for Qatari millionaires

Illustration of a maid working by Marta Klawe Rzeczy

Illustration of a maid working by Marta Klawe Rzeczy

As the eyes of the world look over Qatar’s human rights record amid the World Cup, the precarious working conditions of foreign employees working for the country’s elite are also on the agenda. BBC gender and identity correspondent Megha Mohan spoke to two domestic workers and heard accounts of a life of long hours with no days off.

Gladys (not her real name) talks to the reporter late at night, after her bosses go to sleep.

In a brief virtual conversation, she tells me that she works from 8 am to 11 pm every day; cleans, helps to prepare the food and takes care of the children.

Gladys reports that she eats what’s left over from the meal she prepares for her family and says she hasn’t taken time off since the first day she started working, 18 months ago.

“The Lady [para quem eu trabalho] she’s crazy,” says Gladys, a Filipino woman in her 40s, of her boss. “She yells at me every day.”

Before Qatar won the competition 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 scrutiny, Qatar has begun to introduce reforms, but not always implemented in practice.

For example, Gladys’ employers confiscated her passport. If she asked for it back, she wasn’t sure the document would be returned.

Illustration of a maid working by Marta Klawe Rzeczy

Illustration of a maid working by Marta Klawe Rzeczy

But Gladys still says she considers herself lucky. At least she was allowed to keep her phone, she says, unlike some other foreign maids. Also, she is not physically abused. In Qatar, this often happens to domestic workers, she recalls.

There’s another reason why Gladys wants to stay in her current job — she finds it unlikely that at her age she can do anything better. She earns 1,500 rials a month (about R$2,000) and manages to send it all home to support her family.

There are an estimated 160,000 domestic workers in Qatar, according to 2021 data from the Qatar Planning and Statistics Authority.

  • In 2017, Qatar introduced the Domestic Workers Act, which theoretically limits the working day to 10 hours a day and requires daily breaks, weekly time off and paid holidays.

  • However, the NGO Amnesty International says that these laws are not always observed and that overwork, lack of rest and abusive and degrading treatment continue.

Joanna Concepcion of NGO Migrante International, an organization that supports Filipino workers abroad, says many are silent about poor working conditions because making money for their families is their top priority.

But when people in the Gulf states feel confident enough to speak out without censorship, she says, they often mention serious abuse. One woman said her employer would stick her head in a toilet bowl and deny her food and water when she was angry.

Long journeys in “Cinderella’s palaces”

Althea (not her real name) paints a very different picture of her life as a maid in Qatar. Employed by the Al Thani royal family, she makes video calls to the BBC from the basement of a royal residence.

Smiling and excited, she explains that they gave her an iPhone, clothes, jewelry and shoes of a kind she couldn’t afford if she lived in the Philippines.

As in Gladys’ case, it is the difficulty of earning a living wage at home that brought her to Qatar.

As we speak, other Filipino maids, who share a large room in Althea’s quarters, say hello and join in on the call.

They have their own rooms and a private kitchen. This is important. The maids Althea sees on TikTok and Facebook begging for food and someone to rescue them are not so lucky.

“I see these videos online all the time, which is why I feel so lucky,” she says. “To me, every day feels like a fairy tale.”

Illustration of Mary Grace Morales amidst desert scenes by Marta Klawe Rzeczy

Mary Grace Morales: Qatari maids working for royalty must be highly energetic – and beautiful

Yet the workday is long in these “Cinderella palaces,” as she describes them, with their soaring ceilings and chandeliers, gold-encrusted antiques, mother-of-pearl table tops and freshly cut flowers.

A workday usually starts at 6:30 am, when employees prepare breakfast for the family. Althea eats as soon as the family is finished. After cleaning, they clean the rooms and organize lunch preparations.

“It’s a light job because there are so many of us”, Althea points out.

The maids rest in their apartments between 3 pm and 6 pm, then prepare for dinner. Once the bosses finish their meal, her shift is over and she is free to leave the compound if she chooses.

The royal family does not retain your passport. But Althea works every day, including weekends. She is not entitled to the day off that Qatari law should now guarantee, unless she chooses to stay home and not get paid. It’s a price she pays to financially support her family.

Mary Grace Morales, a recruiter in Manila who connects Filipino officials with wealthy families in the Gulf, describes working for the palace as “enviable.”

“There are many perks. The family is generous,” she says.

“The girls get fat while they are in the palace. The family feeds them well,” he adds.

But royalty has some very specific requirements, says Morales.

“The girls sent to work for the Qatari royal family are aged between 24 and 35 and are very beautiful,” says Morales.

She pauses as she video chats with me.

“Prettier than you,” she says, smiling.

Later, she sends a WhatsApp message to apologize, as her children overheard her and said she was rude. I assure her that I wasn’t offended—and I neglect to mention that hiring people based on her appearance would be illegal in many countries.

“They need to be young because the royal family of Qatar needs highly energetic and healthy individuals who can handle the busy palace environment.

“And the candidates have to be pretty—very pretty,” she repeats.

Joanna Concepcion of the NGO Migrante International says she hopes Althea’s account of working as a royal servant is true, but adds: “It’s unlikely that we can know for sure while she’s still in Qatar and working for such a powerful family.”

family support

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, claiming they were forced to work long hours without overtime. The family denied the allegations and claimed diplomatic immunity when they filed in New York.

“Reporting and addressing cases of violence and harassment, lack of occupational health and safety, and lack of decent accommodation can be a challenge,” says Ruba Jaradat, the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) regional director for Arab countries.

The ILO says it is working with Qatar to implement new rules guaranteeing a minimum wage, a weekly day off, 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 sleep, she will send a message to one of her siblings or parents in the Philippines. Althea is often homesick—a fairytale palace is not a home.

However, it remains a crucial source of income.

“I could never support my family without this job,” she says.

The BBC questioned the Qatari royal family and the Qatari embassy in London about the content of this report, but received no response.

Illustrations by Marta Klawe Rzeczy

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