Updated at 4:15pm to reflect NBK’s retraction of policy and statement sent to Doha News and at 6pm with comment from Amnesty International.
A Qatar real estate company has withdrawn a policy that was introduced in its residential compounds yesterday requiring sponsors to produce written permission to security guards before their house help leaves the compound.
The board of directors of Nasser Bin Khaled Real Estate, which manages more than QR2 billion of real estate, including Nasser’s Village compound in Abu Hamour and another in West Bay Lagoon, this afternoon issued an apology for the new policy, which it called “shameful” and said constituted illegal practices.
Tenants were sent a letter yesterday that stated:
“It is strictly prohibited for residents’ housemaids to leave the compound without a permission letter from the housemaid’s tenant, to avoid any conflicts and neighborhood problems.
In addition, neither the management nor the security of the compound shall be responsible for any escape of any of your housemaids or the safety of children. Parents are advised to use appropriate means for the safety of their children.”
That notice had been issued without the permission of NBK’s board of directors, according to an official statement sent to Doha News this afternoon by Tammam Akkari, Director of Legal Affairs at NBK Holding Group.
“The Company has always been and will continue to be an unconditional supporter of the workers’ rights and a vehement defender of the human rights that are one of the top priorities of the State of Qatar and the Laws of the country, without any ounce of discrimination or prejudgments. The ‘prohibitions’ or ‘restrictions’ contained in the circular constitute illegal and inacceptable practices.”
Apologizing to the tenants, and to the citizens and residents of Qatar, he said the company was immediately withdrawing the policy and that its ethics committee would open an investigation on the matter.
“Appropriate disciplinary measures shall be taken against the General Manager of NBK Real Estate,” the statement concluded.
He told Doha News that all tenants would be sent a letter this afternoon apologizing and retracting the policy.
A NBK real estate manager told Doha News earlier today that the new policy was implemented after a recent incident in one of the company’s compounds.
He said a domestic worker quit her job and moved out of her sponsor’s home without informing them, leaving a baby alone in the house while both parents were out.
He said the child’s parents and compound management were alerted when a neighbor reported hearing the baby crying and security was called to investigate.
As a result, some tenants questioned why security guards had not stopped the woman from leaving the compound, and called for the company to take action to prevent similar situations from happening in the future, he said.
The new policy requires the sponsor of the domestic worker to write and submit a letter to security guards each time the nanny or housemaid wishes to leave the grounds of the compound.
However, the NBK manager said that tenants can opt out of the new policy if they contact their compound management in writing. He continued:
“This rule was brought in to try to mitigate any risk. What happened before was serious. But if a tenant is not happy, and they want their housemaid to move around freely, they can write a letter to their management saying that they give their permission for their maid to come and go. This letter should say that our security and management will not be held responsible for anything which might happen.
We will not impose this on anyone who doesn’t want it. We just want to make sure there is security when tenants are not in their houses. Security for their property, their possessions and their kids. We want to protect the interests of our tenants.”
News of the policy sparked an immediate online outcry, with many denouncing the policy as illegal and tantamount to collective punishment.
While the labor law here does not include domestic workers, Qatar is a signatory to CEDAW (the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women), which it ratified in 2009.
The convention defines discrimination against women as “…any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”
Amnesty International condemned the initial decision. Researcher Mustafa Qadri said in a statement to Doha News: “Any such policy would be a clear violation of the right to freedom of movement, and is likely also in violation of some international labor standards.
“On a practical level, it would compound the problems faced by domestic workers who already suffer because the Labor Law doesn’t apply to them, and, like almost all migrant labor in Qatar, have had their passports confiscated and are tied to their employer under the Kafala (sponsorship) system.
“Rather than punish domestic workers further, the authorities and their employers should respect the right to freedom of movement, and the right to change employers,” he added.
Along with other Gulf states, Qatar has been intensely criticized by human rights organizations and workers’ groups for failing to have sufficient mechanisms in place to protect its sizable population of female household staff.
Amnesty International estimates there are around 84,000 women in Qatar working as household staff, including nannies, housemaids and cooks.
The rights group said the demographic is especially vulnerable to exploitation as the private nature of their work can make investigation of allegations of maltreatment difficult.
Documented abuses include complaints about excessive working hours, late and unpaid wages, restrictions on movement and sexual assaults.
In April 2013, Amnesty International published a 63-page report “My sleep is my break: Exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Qatar.” The document called for a total overhaul of the system governing the rights of domestic staff, which it described as being broken beyond repair.
The report, comprised of interviews with 52 women working as maids, included harrowing accounts of psychological, physical and sometimes sexual abuse of domestic workers based in Qatar, at the hands of both local and expat sponsors.
No GCC contract
For months, Qatar had been part of discussions among GCC states to introduce a unified contract for domestic workers, which would have been applied across the region’s member states and given legal rights and protections to household staff.
After more than a year of debate, it appeared that a common policy had been agreed Gulf states in November last year.
Among the provisions announced at the time were a weekly day off, the right to live outside their employer’s home, a six-hour working day with paid overtime and the right to travel at any time, the director general of the public authority for workforce Jamal Al-Dosari confirmed to Kuwaiti state news agency KUNA.
However, just days later representatives from Gulf labor ministries backtracked, and were reported in media as saying they didn’t actually have the authority to introduce binding changes.