Foreign domestic helpers and cleaners are being subjected to slave-like labour conditions in Qatar, with many complaining they have been deprived of passports, wages, days off, holidays and the freedom to change jobs.
An investigation by The Guardian reveals that hundreds of Filipino domestic helpers have fled to their embassy in recent months because conditions are so harsh. Many complain of physical and sexual abuse, harassment, long periods without pay and the confiscation of mobile phones.
The exploitation raises further concerns about labour practices in Qatar in advance of the World Cup, after reports about the treatment of construction workers, hundreds of whom have died, many from heart failure or in workplace accidents. The domestic helpers are not directly connected to Qatar's preparations for the soccer tournament, but domestic workers will play a big role in staffing the hotels, stadiums and other infrastructure that will underpin the 2022 tournament.
The Philippine Overseas Labour Office sheltered more than 600 runaway domestic helpers in the first six months of last year alone.
Some workers say they have not been paid for months and many domestic helpers do not get days off. Some must submit to having their contracts and job descriptions changed once they arrive in Qatar.
The non-payment of wages, confiscation of documents and inability of workers to leave their employer constitute forced labour under UN rules. According to the International Labour Organisation, forced labour is "all work which is exacted from someone under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily".
Modern-day slavery is estimated to affect up to 21 million people across the globe.
In January, at least 35 runaway helpers had sought sanctuary at the Philippine Overseas Labour Office in the capital, Doha, which provides support to 200,000 Filipinos in Qatar. The welfare officer said most complained of pay being withheld, insufficient food, overwork and maltreatment. Some said they had endured verbal and physical abuse by sponsors.
Eight Filipino workers gave interviews in which they said they had not been paid for six months, were sometimes deprived of food while cleaning for long hours and had had their passports confiscated. Their names have all been changed for this report.
"We are afraid," said 28-year-old Jane. "We don't really know what to do. We are trying to survive. That's why we do part-time jobs secretly."
If they are caught breaching their contract, the helpers face months in a deportation centre. The repatriation process is often delayed when people do not have their passports, according to James Lynch, Amnesty International's researcher on Gulf migrants' rights.
Qatar vigorously denies it is a "slave state" and is understood to be reviewing the controversial system that governs migrant labour, and to have stepped up inspections of businesses that use migrant labour. The Qatari labour ministry said in a statement: "We have clear laws and contractual terms in place to protect all people who live and work in Qatar and anyone found to have broken those laws will be prosecuted accordingly."
It said that non-payment of wages and confiscation of passports were illegal in Qatar, and added: "The vast majority of workers in Qatar, domestic or otherwise, work amicably, save money and send this home to improve the economic situation of their families and communities in their home countries."
The Philippines-based OFW [Overseas Foreign Workers] Watch, which supports Filipino migrant workers, said physical abuse, delayed and refused salaries, the misrepresentation of employers and contracts and passport confiscations were common issues in Qatar.
As with the construction workers, the abuse of helpers was systemic and brought into sharp focus by a lack of legal protection and the kafala sponsorship system, under which workers cannot leave the country or change jobs without their employer's permission, Lynch said. "The women we've spoken to who have suffered abuses in the workplace ranging from excessive working hours to physical violence, their employers came from a variety of countries."
Several recruitment agencies told a reporter pretending to be a would-be client that they routinely withheld the passports of their migrant workers.