Late last month, Qatar approved legislation that provides legal protections for domestic workers. The ‘Domestic Workers Law’ is expected to benefit over 170,000 workers, of whom 62% are women, most from Asia or Africa.
For the first time, nannies, cooks, gardeners and others working in private homes are entitled to mandatory written contracts that define working hours, rest breaks, annual leave, and benefits. This law was celebrated as a positive step towards greater protection of vulnerable workers but it should be taken with caution.
While the new law defines a series of rights and benefits, it does not establish enforcement mechanisms to make sure that these rights are upheld and punish employers who do not comply. It also did not abolish the kafala system that forbids migrant workers to change employers, even if they have experienced exploitation. This inability to switch employers renders workers extremely vulnerable as they cannot easily leave exploitative situations, and many fear losing their job and right to work visa if they complain about abusive treatment. Coupled with a lack of enforcement mechanisms this could mean that the majority of cases of labour abuse will continue to go unreported.
In Qatar, domestic workers are expected to work two hours longer per day than all other workers, who are covered by different legislation. Additionally, they do not benefit from paid overtime unless this is agreed upon with the employer. Whilst it is now illegal to force domestic workers to work when sick, it is unclear whether they are entitled to paid leave. These examples add to the concern that Qatar does not do enough to protect migrant workers, as seen last year when labour reforms failed to address serious abuses in Qatar’s construction industry and other sectors which rely heavily on migrant labour.
Qatar is not alone in developing legislation for domestic workers. In 2015 Kuwait became the only country in the Gulf region to define a minimum wage for domestic workers, and Bahrain has established a mediation mechanism to settle labour disputes. In the United Arab Emirates, a bill awaiting ratification designs a new visa sponsorship system, in which domestic workers would no longer have their immigration status linked to their employer. Whilst all these laws have shortcomings, they demonstrate that countries in the region are taking steps towards recognising domestic work as work.
Qatar’s ‘Domestic Labour Law’ shows a commitment to protect a portion of the workforce whose rights are often overlooked. However, unless clear enforcement systems are put in place to ensure compliance and enable workers to access their rights, this law will do little to reduce vulnerability to exploitation.