A recent Amnesty International report about the dismal treatment of domestic workers in Qatar has sparked several discussions on the subject among residents in Doha. Here, Qatari blogger Raed Al Emadi enters the conversation with a different perspective.
Khadama, maid, nanny, house assistant – we have many titles for a person in this role, someone who seems to be a must in communities where a family includes more than a person and his pet!
It appears that people like to focus on the extremes with regards to khadamas. Such as:
- All Qatari families are neo-feudalists who have come up with a new type of slavery, or
- All khadamas are murderous thieves and perverted slackers.
These extremes at both end of the spectrum are easily identified, and condemned unequivocally. However, what I want to talk about is the gray area in between, where much of misunderstanding takes place between those who believe that we have a fair system and those who believe that the maids’ situation is closer to slavery than employment.
To do this, I will take an institutional approach, one we are all familiar with.
Ready, set, khadama
Here’s what happens first: The family (pet included) recognizes a new role needs to be filled to help maintain daily operations of the house. You are currently the human resources (HR) manager, but also serve many other functions, including but not limited to:
- Bodyguard; and
- Portable ATM machine.
The idea of being able to delegate some of these tasks to someone else prompts you to spread your arms wide open to a recruitment agency. The agency presents you with numerous candidates categorized by nationality and religion.
Some nationalities are blocked, some are in demand and some faiths cost more than others (for instance a Muslim khadama costs around QR500 more compared to maids of other religions).
All these random prices follow supply and demand principle, inflation rates and cost of living, resulting in an astronomical figure.
The CVs of the candidates are mostly standardized. They feature an image of a tired face in a silly uniform (some need a picture with a uniform to make up their minds I suppose).
The CVs list many of the requirements that you and your family are looking for at Home, Inc.
And so, after many weeks or possibly months of anticipation, you are contacted with the happy news about your new employee’s arrival.
At this stage, you are being congratulated by family members for receiving your all-in-one employee.
Houston, we have a problem
Not long after the jubilation subsides, you are confronted with a classic HR problem. The candidate is neither aware of the job description nor the functions it entails.
The candidate also does not understand a word of English. So much for the word “fluent” in the CV! By now you are doubting everything you were promised, so you resort to hand gestures, holding an imaginary child in your hands while saying: “bambino?”
And as it turns out, the maid does not have a child as the CV describes, does not know how to cook (which was listed as a plus) and has not traveled all this way to work as a maid!
The maid moved to Qatar to work for a company, not a house. Something inside of you breaks – it’s not necessarily rejection, but perhaps the knowledge that you are someone’s disappointment. In some instances, workers pay the recruitment agency in their country to come all the way here.
Feel bad not! The saga continues.
Your employee, the maid, is irritated and disappointed. She therefore does not feel like exceeding your expectations. She does not feel like meeting them to begin with, and this is evident from the sloppy jobs here and there, the carelessness and lack of motivation.
The requirements were not met, and you feel like you have been tricked! You are frustrated because you compare yourself to her.
You would never go back to your own manager to say: I am too slow and I cannot meet the deadline, so why should she hold you accountable to this part of the contract?
You feel unease trusting her around your kids, because she shows no interest in your kids, and is unlikely to take a selfie shot with them while smiling. You have paid an arm and a leg to get this employee onboard, but as it turns out that she is a bad hire.
What do you do? The recruitment agency would have replaced her for someone else within the first three months, but that would take a long time, and you cannot go back to a situation of having nothing in the interim, so you settle for less quality and compromise.
It’s sad, so sad – why can’t we talk it over
It gets weirder as the days go by. Do you allow her to use the internet? When she takes the day off, is she allowed to do anything? If not, did the recruitment agency in her home country explain these social norms to her?
What would be fair to someone who sleeps under your roof but does not necessarily share your beliefs? Would you allow your maid to pray five times a day on time if you’re a Christian, even if your kids require attention while she does so?
Would you allow her to drink alcohol on her day off if you’re a Muslim? The contract does not go through these meticulous details, which could be a deal breaker to both parties.
The contract’s duration is two years, and after three months she is not sure about wanting to stay that long.
Now what do you do? Do you force her to stay against her will, because of her contract obligation? What if she cannot pay you back the amount you have paid the recruitment agency?
Or do you lose your money and risk bringing another employee who “fluently speaks English and is a loving mother herself?”
What guarantees do you have that your next recruit is not one who is mentally ill? Trust me, it’s not pretty. Trust me.
Jokes aside, the domestic worker industry in Qatar needs reform, as the current contractual agreements do not address many areas that result in this awkward predicament.
In addition, recruitment agencies need to be held accountable to both employers and employees i.e. the maids. Both government entities and civil society organizations need to create the necessary framework, codes and guiding principles.
Collectively, we need to ensure fair treatment of these women who travel across the globe to earn their bread, and at the same time acknowledge that, just as any employment contract, employers need to benefit from the recruitment.