I was ready to leave exploitation in Qatar – then COVID-19 hit

Mary works as a driver and housekeeper for a family in Qatar. Like thousands of other domestic workers across the Gulf region Mary has been poorly treated and overworked, and earlier this year she made the decision to leave. At the last minute, COVID-19 put her plans on hold.

I work for a family who have six children. I paid around 1200$ to an agency to get this job. It’s hard work but I have responsibilities back in Kenya – I need to take care of my son, as well as my mother who is very sick.

On a typical day I wake up at 5 to clean the car. Between 6 and 7.30 I am driving back and forth from the house taking the kids to school and my employer to her job. When I get back I have to clean parts of the house, which takes about four hours. I don’t have time for a proper breakfast or lunch.  I spend the afternoon picking the family up from various locations.

My employer takes money from my salary to 'cover the cost' of bringing me here
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My employers don’t know I have a phone. I brought one with me from Kenya and I keep it hidden in my room. I am supposed to be on call all the time which means I can’t ever really switch off. This often means staying up late, waiting to pick someone up at midnight.

Recently I had an accident because I was so tired that I hit the pedal instead of the brake. The car repair money was deducted from my salary, even though the garage told me the insurance covered the cost.

I’m a good driver and I could earn a good salary, but in this job I only get 1200 QAR (around $330 USD). Every month my employer deducts money from this to cover the cost of bringing me here, though this was not in the agreement when I started. I have not raised this with my employers – actually I’m not even allowed to talk to the man.

I have friends here who are just waiting at the embassy until they can go home
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The system in the Gulf countries gives all the power to employers. Because we are “sponsored” by our employers, we depend on them for our legal status, which means we can’t change jobs without their permission.

The worst time for me was when one of the other employees left. I was expected to take on her work too and it was disastrous. I have never been so stressed, I barely ate. And in all those months I didn’t get any overtime, not even a ‘thank you for what you are doing, it’s an excellent job’.

I felt like I was being taken advantage of, and so after I’d been here about a year I decided to leave. I thought I would go back to Kenya for a while and then to Dubai, so I saved up and bought a ticket to go to Kenya. I was supposed to fly in April, but when Qatar was put into lockdown in March all flights were cancelled.

In Kenya my mum had an emergency operation - it was so hard being stuck here in Qatar
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I’m now just stuck here - nothing is moving.  My mother went into hospital for an emergency operation and I am so stressed about that. I have so much going on internally and I can’t talk to anyone – sometimes I want to get up and work just so I have an outlet for my emotions.

I have friends here who are just waiting at the embassy until they can go home. It’s hard living away from your family – imagine finally getting to the end of your contract and then being unable to fly at the last minute because of COVID-19.

At least my workload is a bit less because I am not driving. Usually Ramadan is a really tough time for housekeepers but I’m hoping this year will be a little bit calmer. 

It helps to remember it’s not just me in this situation – so many people had plans for this year which are now blocked. I am trying to make peace with the fact that I’m doing what I came here to do, even if it’s not exactly as I expected. I just need to hold on for a couple of months. When COVID-19 goes the doors will open and I can move on with my life.

Amnesty International is calling on all Gulf governments to protect domestic workers from exploitation, abuse and discrimination. They should ensure they are covered by labour law protections in order to guarantee their labour rights which include: limited working hours, day off, overtime pay and freedom of movement. More information here

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