Thursday, January 22, 2009

Maids in Qatar - when something goes wrong

One of the "perks" of living in Qatar is that most of the houses come with maid's quarters. Many if not most of the higher paid expats have maids as do most if not all Qataris. The houses are big (our has six bathrooms) and the floors are stone. There is lots of sand that constantly blows into your homes, so it is very helpful to have someone to keep your home clean. Many of the maids also cook for the family and help take care of the children.

Someone in your home
As a westerner, not from a Paris Hilton kind of wealth family, I had never had a maid before. I had had occasional cleaning help for a couple of hours a week, but never someone live in my home. I wasn't sure what it would be like, whether I would want to have a stranger milling around.

Living conditions
Also, while there are maid's quarters - these rooms are often not much bigger than a storage cupboard, just room enough to squeeze in a bed (single, of course), a small chest of drawers and a small wardrobe. No room for an additional chair or sofa. Initially I couldn't imagine having someone live in such a small space, but over time you are continually told that this small clean space with their own private bathroom en-suite, is better than the conditions they would live in at home- possible one room shared with multiple family members with no running water.

Salaries
The salaries and working hours are also very different to what you would pay in the west. And what I find most amazing is that the salary paid is not according to the job / hours worked but according to race. Philippinas tend to earn the most, their embassy has set a salary that they are to be paid, but there is no regulation so some pay less, some pay more, but they definitely earn more than women from India. Sri Lankans are normally paid less than Indians and women from Africa may even be paid less. I just find it astounding.

The justification as far as I can determine has nothing to do with the cost of living here, but the relative value of their earnings in their home country. Live in maids are provided with accommodation, food, and normally some clothes. They work six days a week with only Fridays off (and many don't even get Fridays off) so they really don't go anywhere or spend money on much of anything. Most of them send almost their entire salary home so the wages scales (non-official) are based on what cost of living is in their home country.

Difficulty in obtaining part time help
One of the reasons that most people end up with full time live in maids instead of having part time help and occasional babysitters is that there are very few people available to hire locally to do this kind of work. You have to remember that Qatar is a country of about 1.5 million people, of which only 250K are citizens. The rest are "imported" labour with no right to permanent residency or citizenship. You are brought in for a job, you do your job, then you go home. The vast majority of the imports are men (there is a 3-1 male to female ratio here) so there just aren't many women around looking to earn some extra money by cleaning homes / babysitting. There certainly aren't any Qatari women who work in this role. So if you want someone, you have to sponsor them, bring them in yourself and this is what people do.

Evening social life / demands
As a result of all these people having live in maids, most people with children go out much more often than they would in their home country. Also as for a large part of the year it is so hot, you really do go out in the evening as you just can't do too much during the day (but the kids still start school at 7am so there aren't any teenagers able to babysit either!) So if you don't have live in help and you have kids it is much more difficult have any social life here.

The big decision
So we finally decided to get a live in maid when friends of ours suggested a maid that they knew and would recommend. She was from India and was related to these friends' maid. We spoke with her on the phone, filled out all the necessary paperwork and had it filed with the appropriate government body. The government body does it in two stages, first they deem whether we are eligible to hire a maid (they said yes we were), then whether we could bring in this particular maid (they decided that we couldn't). Not that there was anything wrong with this woman but they (arbitrarily as far as we could see) decided that we were to hire either a Philippino or an Indonesian maid - we could not bring in a maid from India. We appealed and they still said no - Philippino or Indonesian only.

We decided to not bother for a while as we didn't want to get any one who hadn't been recommended to us and we just didn't know anyone and we didn't really want a stranger in our home.

After a few months another friend said that she had found her maid through the Philippine Embassy. So many women are mistreated by their employers here that the embassy runs a women's shelter for run away maids. Most of them are deported (repatriated) and the employers are never prosecuted (the topic of another post at some time). This friend advised that some of the maids just need a second chance with a "nice" family so we contacted the embassy. They told us that they had a woman available who had run away from her employer because they made her work 20 hours a day with no day off and they yelled at her and withheld money from her salary if she did anything wrong. We interviewed her twice and decided to hire her.

She came and was very nice and helpful around the home. She seemed so happy to be with us and while she didn't talk much everything seemed fine. Our concerns of having someone else in our home melted away as she was very inobtrusive. If we were upstairs, she would work downstairs and vice versa. She never came upstairs until she knew we were up and dressed - so there were no awkward moments. Over time we found out that she did a few things that weren't right but we talked to her about them and there would always be some improvement.

She always seemed very trustworthy and we never felt the need to lock things away. On her day off, she went to church and had church friends to hang out with, which we grateful for as there is not a lot to do in Doha - especially if you don't have much money to spend. We also gave her part of another day off when she asked if she could take a computer course offered by the Philippine Embassy's overseas workers association. All seemed to be going well..... until one Saturday night.

When things go wrong
Over the course of a couple of days / nights she seemed to be losing her mind. At first I wasn't sure, things just seemed a bit odd, but one night when I ended up locking myself and my children in my bedroom because of her behaviour (my husband was out of town on business), I knew she had to go.

It was a very stressful few days and she received some treatment, but I will not have her back in my home.

Losing your job in Qatar
It is hard as this is not your average employee / employer situation. In a normal situation where someone works for you but lives in their own home and is a resident of that country - if they steal from you, or endanger you, you can fire them and they get hopefully get support from their family etc.. and go and find a new job when they are better.

Here - they are in your home, on your sponsorship - so if you fire them they lose their job, their home and have to leave the country. They go home to poverty, to children who are relying on their financial support.

I am saddened by this experience. I have to put the safety of my family first. It was a very stressful few days - operating in an environment where you aren't sure what is the right path to take - how to best care for yourself and how to care for her.

I am grateful for the Philippine embassy women's shelter - unfortunately they appear to have a lot of experience in dealing with this situation - though often it is induced by the abuse of the employer.

We still don't know what triggered this mental breakdown and probably will never fully know and comprehend all that this woman has lived through. We don't know anymore what is the truth and what are lies that she has told us.

So will we hire another live in maid?

I really don't know. This has scared me, but when I think through it logically, you know it is an aberration. There are thousands of other maids who live here peacefully and many become an integral part of the family. But still... you never know what can happen and now I need some time to reflect - when I am not cleaning six bathrooms and mopping the floors!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

is there also men's quarter in Philippine Embassy.I am mistreated with my sponsorand afraid i will do to the Embassy.please help me.

Anonymous said...

I have had the misfortune of having a maid whose actions and words still haunt our family.We have never had a live-in maid after that experience. Now I preffer the cleaner guy who comes does the work and just leave.Babysitting and cooking remain my domain..

Anonymous said...

If you are a housemaid that is being mistreated by your sponsor you can call the Qatar Foundation for Combating Human Trafficking.

The 24-hour hot line number is 55653388.

We also have a shelter for victims of human trafficking.