Photo for representational purpose (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Randall Moose/Released)

By VL Srinivasan

A long and agonising wait of six years comes to an end with The Emir, His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, issuing a decree in August this year, but plenty still needs to be done for the betterment of domestic workers in this country.

The move has been described as a “positive step” and received well by the diplomatic missions, international agencies and rights activists among others but they expect some more decisions to further consolidate the action plan.

Some of the salient features of the legislation include a written contract that details the type and nature of the job, salary, food, accommodation and other conditions. In addition it states that the employers should treat workers in a manner that preserves their dignity and bodily integrity, not to harm the worker physically or psychologically, or endanger the worker’s life or health. The employers also must provide their workers with medical treatment for injuries or illness; the legislation further prohibits employers from deducting workers’ pay to compensate for recruitment fees and also force them to work while on sick leave.

An estimated 173,742 domestic workers, including 107,621 women, mostly from the Philippines, India, Bangladesh and other Asian and African countries, will be covered under the legislation. This is the first such protection law for a large number of household staff in the nation.

The law includes 24 articles after taking into consideration the Labour Law No 14 of 2004 and its amendments, and Law No 21 of 2015, regulating the entry and exit of expatriates and their residence, modified by Law No 1 of 2017, in addition to the civil and commercial procedure law issued by Law No 13 of 1990, along with its amendments.

The new legislation also stipulates that the regulations for recruiting domestic workers and their medical checkups and residency permit are governed by those of Law No 21 of 2015, in a way that does not conflict with this Law No 15 of 2017.

The government has been moving step by step in initiating labour reforms, which include ensured proper and prompt wages for foreign workers, improvement in their accommodation, and announcing the scrapping of the kafala (labour sponsorship system) in favour of a contract-based system in December 2016.

While domestic helps were not covered under the reforms, the enactment of Law No. (15) of 2017 to create a common contract system has been aimed at covering them – including foreign nannies, gardeners, drivers and maids – by arming them with legal rights.

Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), more than a year ago, recommended to the government to bring in such a law, and the cabinet approved the draft legislation in February this year. The decree was issued as a follow up to the cabinet’s decision in August.

Director of International Cooperation at NHRC, Saad Sultan Al Abdulla, told Al Jazeera that the law was progressive and would go a long way towards ensuring that more reforms will protect the rights and interests of people working in Qatar.

Kuwait and Bahrain have already enacted legislations to protect the domestic workers against exploitation, and Qatar became the third member-state in the GCC to have such legislation. The UAE followed Qatar by coming up with similar reforms a few weeks ago. The government has been working on the law for a few years and an indication to this effect was clear when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to Qatar in June 2016, reportedly raised the issue with Sheikh Tamim.

The latter assured the Indian leader about Qatar’s commitment to protect the interests of domestic servants as well as other foreign workers and true to his word, the Emir has not only abolished the kafala system but also enacted the Domestic Employment Law.

Even the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has asked Qatar to present a report on the implementation of reforms by November 2017 and with all things in place, the report is being prepared by the government.

Pat on the back for Qatar

The Philippines has been among the many countries that have welcomed the labour reforms introduced by Qatar. According to official figures, there are about 246,000 overseas Filipino workers in Qatar, making it the third highest source of migrant workers in the country.

The Migrant Workers’ Affairs wing in the Department of Foreign Affairs said the coverage of Qatar’s new legislation has been expanded to cover household service workers and provides them with some degree of legal protections. “This is certainly a cause for celebration as this new law would benefit more than 50,000 Filipino household service workers who did not enjoy these benefits before,” the officials said.

Alan Peter S Cayeteno, Foreign Affairs Secretary, The Government of Philippines

“This law will certainly lead to the recognition, promotion and protection of the rights of Filipino and other migrant household service workers in Qatar.”

Thanking Qatar for its “Progressive Legislation” to protect domestic workers from being exploited, Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter S Cayeteno says the law will benefit over 50,000 Filipino household service workers working in Qatar. “This law will certainly lead to the recognition, promotion and protection of the rights of Filipino and other migrant household service workers in Qatar,” he added.

Positive and vital step

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation; Thematic Discussions of United Nations Climate Change Summit 2014: Climate, Health and Jobs

“Since fears are an overwhelming impediment, given workers face retaliation by their employers after filing complaints, there must be an appropriate monitoring system in place to prevent such intimidation.”

International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharan Burrow says the new law is an important first step to regulate working hours and promote minimum protections for domestic workers but it does not fully conform to the ILO Domestic Workers Convention N.189 which gives domestic workers fundamental rights.

She says one of the positive provisions of the act is the requirement of a written contract establishing the nature of the job, salary and other conditions. It also requires employers to protect workers from physical and psychological abuse. It provides for workers to get access to medical treatment and compensation for work related injuries in accordance with the Labour Law. Further, employers must provide accommodation and food for domestic workers.

“However, the confederation wants the government to commit to bringing this law into compliance with Convention 189 and extend the wages protection system to cover this group of workers,” she says. She wants the government to commit to an action plan with clear timelines to implement the law as a first step and assure domestic workers access to the new labour disputes resolution committee with appeal rights to the court system.

While the new law establishes fines for violations, it lacks provisions for enforcement, such as workplace inspections, including in homes where domestic workers are employed, and she expects the same protection afforded to other workers in accordance with Article 17(2)-(3) of the ILO Convention 189, with a strengthening of the labour inspectorate.

“Since fears are an overwhelming impediment, given workers face retaliation by their employers after filing complaints, there must be an appropriate monitoring system in place to prevent such intimidation,” she says. She also wants the government to respect, promote and realise the fundamental principles and rights at work for migrant domestic workers, as set out in Article 3 of the ILO Convention 189, since they are unable to exercise the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining pursuant to Art 3 (2) (a) of the Convention.

Moving in right direction

“If the law is adequately enforced, domestic workers could finally be treated like workers who can stop working at the end of their work day, enjoy a weekly day off to rest, and be able to visit their families every year.”

Rothna Begum, Women’s Rights’ Researcher, Human Rights Watch

Rothna Begum, Women’s Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch, says that for the first time the new legislation which includes a weekly rest day, a limit of a 10-hour working day, three weeks of annual leave, and an end-of-service payment of at least three weeks per year, will impact the lives of some 173,742 domestic workers, most of whom are women, and typically from Asia and Africa.

“Qatar and its neighbours are moving in the right direction on domestic workers’ rights but for these highly vulnerable workers, the GCC needs to bolster protections and strongly enforce laws,” she says. She adds that many such workers endure long working hours without rest or a day off. According to her, while they cook, care and clean for other families, many are unable to speak to or see their own family for years.

“If the law is adequately enforced, domestic workers could finally be treated like workers who can stop working at the end of their work day, enjoy a weekly day off to rest, and able to visit their family every year,” Rothna says.

According to her, while fines can be imposed on erring employers for violation of its provisions under the act, it does not provide any mechanism for domestic workers to lodge complaints and seek redress when their rights are violated, apart from compensation for work injuries. The law also lacks provisions for enforcement, such as workplace inspections, including homes where domestic workers are employed.

She further says that without these steps such rights are meaningless, and hopes that the authorities put in place enforcement and complaint mechanisms, including an expedited dispute-resolution mechanism, which refers all complaints that do not reach fair resolution to a labour-complaints court that can resolve related cases within a time-bound period. They should also allow for workplace inspections with due regard for privacy, like in the UAE, which has included workplace inspections in its new law on domestic workers.

Rothna also feels that Qatar should align the law in line with the ILO Domestic Workers Convention by plugging all loopholes that employers could easily exploit, and ensure that domestic workers have protections on par with other workers.

“For instance, the law should reduce the number of working hours per day to eight, and ensure a 48-hour work week like it does for others under the Labour Law. They could do this under any implementing regulations by requiring rest breaks, which could reduce it to an 8-hour working day,” she adds.

She points that Kuwait has stipulated limits to overtime hours and overtime pay if workers agree to work during their non-working hours. Kuwait has also outlined overtime compensation and limited the number of overtime hours within its implementing regulations for its domestic workers law.

“Similarly, Qatar can stipulate in its regulations that domestic workers are free to leave the workplace during their non-working hours, including on their weekly rest day. It should also provide for provisions for sick leave, including whether it should be paid in line with what the labour law provides for other workers,” Rothna adds.

Qatar ranked second

While the rights activists demand that Qatar should remove discrimination and also set minimum wages for the workers, who are recruited on the basis of their nationality, with corresponding minimum salaries often set by their respective embassies, according to a survey on the salaries of foreign domestic workers in the Middle East, conducted by Hong Kong company HelperChoice. The online platform that matches employers with domestic workers at no cost to helpers, revealed that Qatar, in fact, is placed second, after the UAE, as far as payment for domestic workers is concerned.

The recruitment agency analysed data from close to 2,000 job ads posted by its users between January and August 2017. However, the wages do not include food allowance, cost of accommodation, agency fees, flight costs and medical benefits.

“This is very encouraging for foreign domestic workers (FDW) as our survey shows a great increase in the average salary compared to last year. In the UAE, the average monthly salary increased by 14%, in Kuwait by 7.4%, and in Qatar by 4.4%. However, the wages are steady in Saudi Arabia.”

HelperChoice Country Manager of Hong Kong, Julie Delignon, who authored the survey report, says the average monthly salary offered to helpers is QR1798 ($494) in the UAE, followed by QR1638 ($450) in Qatar, QR1608 ($442) in Saudi Arabia and QR1525 ($419) in Kuwait.

“This is very encouraging for foreign domestic workers (FDW) as the survey shows a great increase in the average salaries compared to last year. In the UAE, the average monthly salary increased by 14%, in Kuwait by 7.4%, in Qatar by 4.4%. However, the wages are steady in Saudi Arabia,” she says.

According to survey findings, the data showed that domestic workers tend to earn more in big cities. Dubai stood first by offering QR1929 ($530), far ahead of Kuwait City (at second place), which offers QR1714 ($471).

“Three employers even proposed a salary of QR3000 (USD813) in Doha, and another even proposed QR3472 ($954) in Abu Dhabi, the two highest salaries,” she says.

In HelperChoice job ads, employers can also fill in the minimum number of years of experience required for their helper. Surprisingly enough, the locations in which the salary is the highest are not the cities in which the required number of years of experience is also the highest.

“For instance, in Qatar, in Al Rayyan the numbers of experience required is about 2.8 years and the average salary is QR1,456 ($395), while in Al Khor, the average minimum of years required is less than one year, but the proposed monthly salary is QR1,617 ($438). So, the employers in Al Khor propose 10% more for less experienced domestic workers,” says Delignon.

“Even the legislation regarding domestic workers’ conditions also varies a lot and should be taken into account when comparing the salaries among the Middle Eastern countries,” says Delignon. She adds that Qatar’s landmark decree on August 22, 2017 sought to better regulate the domestic work in the country with, in particular, a prescribed maximum of 10 working hours per day and a signed contract between the domestic worker and employer.

Heart-touching video

Besides the shocking tales of abuses and tortures of domestic servants in the country, there are many instances of positive relationships among them wherein the workers have been treated as one of the family members by the employers.

Qatari writer Nasser Al Naama, who was brought up by a Filipina nanny Yaya Zubaidah ever since he was born over two decades ago, posted a video, which went viral on social media, paying rich tributes to her.

Speaking in his nanny’s Tagalog language, Nasser speaks about the warm relationship his family has formed with Zubaidah. “My family consists of six people – myself, my three siblings, my mom and dad. However, I always considered us to be a family of seven – the seventh member being our nanny from the Philippines – Zubaidah,” says Nasser, in the video titled “A message to the Filipino Community.”

Zubaidah worked for Nasser’s paternal grandmother Aisha Al Baker and became a part of their lives when his father brought Zubaidah to work for his family.

“For more than 20 years since my birth, she became a quintessential part of my entire family’s life and I can’t imagine what my upbringing would have been like without her. Because of her, I feel an immediate kinship with Filipinos anywhere I go in the world,” he says.

“As a Qatari, I sincerely want to thank the Filipino community in Qatar for all their hard work and undeniable contribution to the development of this country. I especially want to thank you for your support to Qatar during the recent crisis,” he adds.