As Hope* arrived to start her cleaning shift, her eyes anxiously scanned the room. If she spotted him, her heart sank. She might spend the next eight hours dodging his requests for a date, for a kiss, for more than that.
Over an 18-month period from mid-2020, Hope’s male supervisor at the hotel in Qatar where she was employed repeatedly sexually propositioned her, she says. When she refused his advances, he gave her extra housekeeping work for no additional pay.
“I was feeling low,” she says on the phone from her home in Kenya, where she returned at the start of this year after her contract in Qatar came to an end. “Because when someone tells you such things, you ask yourself, why is he taking advantage of you?”
The plight of the tens of thousands of men who traveled thousands of miles to help build Qatar’s World Cup dream and the exploitation that many faced has been widely documented.
Yet rights groups say the problems facing migrant women have not been explored or scrutinized in the same way and their voices have been largely absent from the debate on migrant workers’ rights in the lead up to the start of the tournament.
Women working in the global hospitality industry are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and gender-based violence. A survey by the Unite union into gender-based violence in hospitality industries found that over half of respondents had directly experienced sexual harassment and assault in their workplaces.
The Fuller Project and the Guardian spoke with five women, including Hope, employed at different hotels in Qatar between 2017 and 2022 about their experiences. They detailed allegations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse. Most of these hotels are among more than 100 now endorsed by Fifa, football’s governing body and the tournament organizer.
The testimonies of women interviewed for this piece, as well as those of experts who have worked extensively with female hospitality workers in Qatar, suggest few feel able to report sexual harassment should it occur.
“There’s been so much focus on [men working in] construction and the stadiums, as they are central to the tournament,” says Isobel Archer, Gulf programme manager at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a non-profit that has researched working conditions in Qatar’s hotels. “But [sexual harassment] is absolutely happening in hotels.”
Women simply won’t be able to speak up
Although men dominate the country’s migrant workforce, government data shows nearly 300,000 migrant women worked in Qatar as of June this year.
In 2020, female migrants made up just over a fifth of hotel workers, according to the most recent government statistics, although this is probably a significant undercount as the figures exclude subcontracted workers, say rights groups. To cope with the influx of 1.3 million football fans, an additional 108 hotels have been built ahead of the start of the tournament.
Archer says that high-profile sporting events are linked to an increase in violence against women, further increasing the risks facing women hotel workers and anticipates the same happening during the upcoming World Cup.
She says that urgent action has to be taken by hotels, which will be packed to capacity with football fans, to protect women and allow them to be able to report abuse safely without fear of repercussions.
“I don’t think we’ve seen any evidence that hotels are doing anything, frankly, [to support women],” she says. “And [the women] simply won’t be able to speak up.”
Qatar representatives said the five women’s stories were extreme cases which were not the reality for millions of female workers. Fifa said it took any allegations of misconduct extremely seriously and had a clear process in place for anyone who wanted to report any such incidents.
Whilst women hotel workers across the world face a disproportionate risk of gender-based violence compared to other industries, rights groups say that those working in Qatar could find it particularly difficult to report the abuse they may face. A report published this year by Equidem, a labor rights organization, said gender-based violence and harassment are “a fact of life for women” at some Fifa World Cup hotel partners. Equidem’s researchers contacted more than 800 migrant workers across the region, male and female, but only 10% agreed to have their experiences recorded.
Some women, like Hope, dread deportation. Others might have paid illegal and exorbitant recruitment fees, forcing them to stay in jobs with abusive conditions. Despite sweeping labor reforms in 2019, with migrants now allowed to change jobs or leave the country without an employer’s permission, workers say little has changed. Employers still have a huge degree of control over employees’ lives and with migrant worker unions banned, there are few routes to effectively raise grievances.
Migrant women who come to Qatar, mostly from Africa and Asia, are often the main breadwinner for their families. Many are reluctant to speak out because they fear losing those jobs, says Ann Abunda, founder of Sandigan, a Kuwait-based domestic worker organization. When she asked her network to inquire about issues of harassment in Qatar’s hotels, more than a dozen women replied, either directly via social media or through her contacts in Qatar.
Women told her there was no point in reporting harassment because employers would not act and were angered by the complaint. “[Women] just don’t want to talk [publicly] about that,” says Abunda. “But they are saying it’s rampant.”
The country’s penal code also criminalises sex outside marriage. Police often do not believe women who report sexual violence, says Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, instead siding with men who claim it was consensual, which can lead to the survivor facing charges.
Facing further barriers, all women in Qatar need to show they are married in order to access certain forms of sexual and reproductive healthcare, adds Begum. This can include treatment for sexually transmitted infections, HIV and pregnancy.
“It made me feel very small.”
Sally* was just trying to do her job. Her hotel cleaning shift was nearly over, tiredness was setting in, and the dirty sheets weren’t going to wash themselves. But the male guest asked for a kiss, she says. When she reported the incident to her supervisor, the reply was essentially: “You’re a woman, learn to handle your issues.”
What she experienced at the luxury hotel still affects her, says Sally. “I don’t like getting close to strange men because you never know their intentions. It brings back the memory,” she says from her home in Kenya, her voice tearful. “I never want to go back.”
Management often took little action or sided with guests when female workers complained about harassment, say several.
Instead of dealing with harassment allegations directly, one cleaner describes a policy of swapping staff members in and out when guests behave inappropriately. Once, when a guest tried to slap her, she alleges her supervisor responded by saying she shouldn’t have been serving him in the first place.
“It’s a bit disheartening,” she says. “Besides sexual harassment, maybe a guest is mishandling you or being rude. All these things you report but nothing [is done]. So you just have to deal with it. It made me feel very small. And vulnerable. At the end of the day, ‘the guest is always right’.”
In an attempt to tackle violations, Qatar’s supreme committee has been auditing hotel working conditions and an online platform for worker complaints was launched last year.
Yet rights groups say audits often don’t detect serious abuse as they only provide a snapshot of the situation and rely on input from workers. Women are also reluctant to report issues as sensitive as harassment. “Are you really going to disclose a violation against your body to a complete stranger during a corporate audit?” says Archer. “It’s just a very unlikely scenario.”
The Qatari government has said it will intensify labor inspections during the tournament, including extra health and safety checks.
Mustafa Qadri, the executive director of Equidem, believes the increased scrutiny over the next month will ensure a degree of protection for workers. Yet fundamental structural problems such as migrant workers being unable to organize and their lack of freedoms won’t have been adequately addressed once the world’s attention moves on, he says.
Hotels are not creating an environment for workers to speak up, says Archer. Risk assessments need to be conducted in order to understand who their female migrant workers are and what might make them more susceptible to gender-based violence, she says. Management needs to be trained to spot signs of harassment and to communicate effectively with the entire workforce, particularly subcontracted female employees, who are often at higher risk. Hotels also need to be clear on the reporting process and next steps in terms of safeguarding as well as psychosocial and medical support.
There are reports that restrictions on consensual sex and women’s access to reproductive services may be relaxed during the World Cup. Should this happen, says Begum, the Qatari authorities need to ensure it applies to all women, not just fans, inform all women about the changes and ensure they continue beyond the tournament.
In response to the claims, Fifa said it was steadfast in its commitment to ensuring respect for internationally recognised human rights, takes allegations of misconduct seriously, and has a number of reporting mechanisms in place for anyone wishing to make a complaint, including a workers’ welfare hotline. It added that it was implementing an “unprecedented due diligence process in relation to the protection of workers involved in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, in line with FIFA’s responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”
The guest is always right
A Qatari official said anyone who came forward with a complaint would be supported and their complaint fully investigated: “Qatari law prioritizes the safety and wellbeing of all women. Assault is criminalized under the penal code, and access to justice is a guaranteed right for everyone through the Qatari court system. Female foreign residents play an important role in Qatar’s economy and society, and we do not tolerate any infringement to the fundamental human rights of women or anyone in our country.
As in all countries around the world, unfortunate, extreme cases do occur and unscrupulous employers are a reality. But these extreme cases are not representative of the reality of life for the millions of foreign female residents who have lived in Qatar in recent decades. Protecting the rights of all women in Qatar – including female workers – is and will continue to be at the forefront of our priorities and vision.”
For Sally, her friends at the hotel were quite literally her lifeline. When they heard her arguing with the male guest who asked for a kiss, they rushed in to help, she says. Six months later, they burst in again when they heard her say: “Don’t get any closer.”
This time, a senior supervisor snapped into action. The guest reportedly sent his apologies, though Sally wasn’t sure if this was true as he never said anything directly to her. Concerned about other women being sent to clean his room, she wanted the guest’s stay terminated.
“But they didn’t do that,” she says. “It’s not a privilege for them to have you. It’s a privilege for them to have guests.”
* Names have been changed or omitted to protect identities