Opportunity or “Modern-day Slavery”: Qatar Seeks Balkan Housemaids

Bosnia and Macedonia have signed a troubling “housemaid” deal with Qatar, and it looks like Kosovo will do the same. But what will Balkan domestic workers encounter when they arrive in the energy-rich emirate? 

Officials from Qatar, the desert sheikdom that also happens to be the richest country in the world, are currently recruiting women with Bosnian or Macedonian citizenship to live and work in domestic arrangements that have been characterized as “modern-day slavery” and “indentured servitude”.

Disturbingly, politicians in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia have not addressed these well-publicized problems, and instead have been busy telling the public that Qatar is a great place to work and entirely safe for workers.

Denisa Maglic-Sarajlic, Bosnia’s deputy civil affairs minister, says that Qatar represents “The greatest opportunity for employment of BiH citizens abroad.”

Civil affairs minister Sredoje Novic agrees with his deputy, and says that domestic work in Qatar is safer than in other countries. “The reason we signed this agreement is to protect workers from Bosnia and Herzegovina from the negative situation they’ve faced when seeking employment in other countries,” he said.

In Kosovo, Deputy Labour Minister Fatmir Shurdhaj said that the government had made “maximum efforts” to ensure the first workers would arrive in Doha by “early 2014”.

This glossing over of the Gulf’s many structural problems that encourage the exploitation of workers is deceptive. Of course, not all housemaids in Qatar have a bad experience, and the worst reporting on the subject is filled with stereotypes about meek third world women and the “barbarism” of the Arab world. But enough foreign workers have been mistreated in the Gulf to warrant serious concern.

This means officials in Bosnia and Macedonia were incredibly negligent when they signed the agreement. The Philippines, Nepal, and Indonesia have all made attempts to provide some level of protection for their migrant domestic workers in Qatar. And when Cambodia was offered the same agreement as Bosnia and Macedonia, the country said no.

In contrast, Balkan governments have failed to put any safeguards in place to ensure women from Bosnia and Macedonia do not end up underpaid, exploited, abused, or dead. Kosovo is still negotiating the terms of its “housemaid” agreement with Qatar, and hopefully it won’t be as passive as neighboring countries have been.

“A housmaid working in Qatar bravely speaks out” via Equal Times

The decision to ship Balkan women off to Qatar for work was undoubtedly influenced by the countries’ devastating unemployment rates. Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia have some of the highest unemployment rates in Europe.

But another factor is the Gulf’s growing influence across the Balkans. And Qatar, rich on oil and the country with the highest GDP per capita in the world, has invested a significant amount of money in the region.

The former emir of Qatar, who abdicated in favor of his son in June, has visited Macedonia on a number of occasions to discuss investments in the country’s burgeoning tourism sector. And the emirate recently gifted Macedonia a new, “luxurious” embassy in central Doha “free of charge”.

In Bosnia, the emir endeared himself to the government by launching Al Jazeera Balkans, which broadcasts in B/C/S for six hours every day from its headquarters in Sarajevo. He also donated the bulk of cash needed to build an Islamic Center and mosque (promoted as “the most beautiful mosque in Europe”) on the Adriatic Coast in neighboring Croatia.

The nightmare for domestic workers in Qatar often begins like this: While still in her home country, a housemaid’s future employer signs a contract agreeing to pay a certain monthly salary. After she arrives, her employer slashes her monthly pay. And once she’s in the emirate, it’s usually impossible to do anything but accept the lower salary. It’s not as if she can leave the country without her employer’s permission.

Domestic workers can’t leave the country, rent an apartment, switch jobs, open a bank account, or obtain a driver’s license without their sponsor’s permission

This kind of exploitation is rife under the Gulf’s kafala system, where a “sponsor” or kafeel (employer) essentially owns their foreign employee. Domestic workers can’t leave the country, rent an apartment, switch jobs, open a bank account, or obtain a driver’s license without their sponsor’s permission. A maid’s visa is also linked to her kafeel, so if she quits — even to escape physical abuse or lack of pay — her visa is automatically invalidated. She becomes “illegal”, subject to hefty fines and even imprisonment.

It’s also common for a kafeel to force domestic workers to relinquish any travel documents, including passports, upon arrival, and to hold these items for the duration of the contract. This means workers are literally trapped in Qatar.

The kafeel must also assume full legal responsibility for their employee’s actions, which some sponsors have used as an excuse to deprive domestic workers of “privileges”, like the right to have a mobile phone, or to have a day off.

One woman wrote on a Qatarliving.com thread about maids: “If you give them a day off they go and have sex with a man.” Others seemed to agree with her — no days off . Another explained that she keeps her maid locked inside the family home at all times, save for one supervised trip to the drugstore to buy sanitary products every other month. And one commenter boasted that she installed a hidden camera in her maid’s tiny bedroom.

Some of the mistreatment suffered by domestic workers in Qatar has been so awful it’s painful to read about.

Recently, a 17-year-old maid was raped multiple times by her employer the day she arrived in Qatar.

A 30-year-old woman gave birth to a baby boy after being raped by her employer, and left him in an airport bathroom in Doha when she flew home. She said she’d been terrified about what her family might think. She later reunited with the baby.

Severe beatings and verbal abuse are also common. “Genoveva” (not her real name), a housemaid from the Philippines who says her sponsor cut her hair off the day she arrived in Qatar, remembers the names: Dog. Animal. Donkey.

Mistreatment of maids is so common that the Philippines has its own center in Doha for workers who have fled abusive sponsors. Officials from the Indonesian embassy report that every day, between three and five women show up seeking help for similar problems. They keep a special room for women who’ve left abusive households, and have pictures of beaten and injured maids on the wall.

And then there’s “M.’s” story. When she was found dead inside her sponsor’s villa, the 24-year-old weighed just 39 kg (86 lbs). Forensic experts said it appeared she’d been deprived adequate food for six months.

Mistreatment of foreign workers has become so commonplace that it has strained Qatar’s relations with several countries.

Her injuries were severe: She had 43 bruises (one official would later say he suspected she’d been battered with a hot iron), was missing teeth, her skin had been scarred by cigarette burns, and she’d sustained multiple stab wounds. When investigators searched the home they found what they believed to be the murder weapons: A kitchen knife and an ashtray, both covered in blood. She’d been murdered by her sponsor.

Like many domestic workers in Qatar, M. had worked to support her family back home. After her murder, they decided they had no choice but to accept the diyya or “blood money”. M.’s life was calculated to be worth $40,000 — less than half of Qatar’s GDP per capita. Her murderer got three years in prison.

Mistreatment of foreign workers has become so commonplace that it has strained Qatar’s relations with several countries.

Nepal recently instituted a ban on maids under the age of 30 from working in the Gulf. The Philippines insisted that all of its citizens receive a minimum monthly salary of $400. Qatar refused. The Indonesian embassy in Doha said it could no longer cope with the number of its citizens seeking refuge from abuse, and announced that it would suspend recruitment of new domestic workers.

So the emirate had to look elsewhere for cheaper maids. As Doha News reported last summer, “Countries that Qatar has usually sources its domestic labor, including the Philippines and Nepal, have begun requiring the government to guarantee certain rights for their citizens. Partly in response to this, and due to rising demand for maids, Qatar has started seeking workers from other poor countries, including Bosnia…”

Qatar is looking to recruit maids from Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia because it won’t have to “guarantee them certain rights” — or a minimum wage. According to El-Awlawya Manpower Recruiting Agency in Doha, Bosnians and Macedonians will get paid a minimum of $190 a month.

On an hourly basis, that’s slave wages. An ILO report released earlier this year concluded that maids in Qatar work more hours per week than people in any other profession. The report notes that the average workload is about 60 hours a week, but that 100 hours is common. With a Bosnian or Macedonian maid’s monthly salary, that works out to about $0.48 an hour.

Debating the “best” maid nationality is an obsession in Qatar, and a favorite topic of conversation in air-conditioned villas. The discussions sometimes spillover onto the internet, and are as terrible as you’d expect: As one charming European expatriate wrote, “Just don’t hire filipinas, they are trouble (may i have mobile ma’am, day off ma’am, separate food ma’am) and lazy. always looking at her family pictures lol” .

Naturally, news about the imminent arrival of Bosnians and Macedonians — the first European maids to work in the Gulf — has been extremely controversial. Some local media report that Qatari women worry that their marriages and “social stability” will be threatened by “beautiful European women”. Others have suggested that no Balkan housemaid under 45 should be allowed to work in a Qatari home.

Predictably, there has been a backlash against all the hype about desirable “white maids”. Zaher el Omari from the El-Kabas Manpower Recruiting Agency told the Qatar Tribune, “Eastern European maids are not suitable for Qatari society. It will be difficult for a Qatari or an Arab family to accept a fair skinned woman with blue eyes as their housemaids.”

“Working in Qatar — Know your rights” via Equal Times

Since Qatar was picked to host the World Cup in 2022, it has been urged to reform the kafala system. But it remains overwhelmingly popular: Nine out of ten Qataris surveyed said they opposed the idea of weakening the kafala system, and 30 percent actually said they’d like to see sponsors’ authority over domestic workers increased. A draft law that would secure some basic necessities for maids, such as rest time, has been tied up in court because many Qataris have objected to a section of the law that would guarantee them one day off a week.

But officials from Bosnia and Macedonia deserve some serious criticism for opening their own citizens up to potentially abusive and exploitative treatment, and for not attempting to put any safeguards or minimum salary requirements in place.

As the poem that got the poet Mohammed al-Ajami sentenced to life in a Qatari prison a few years ago read: “Governments and Arab governments/Are all — without exception/A gang of thieves”.



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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia. https://www.instagram.com/lynch.lily/