Three former members of domestic staff are suing the sister of Qatar’s ruling emir who they say cheated them out of overtime payments by requiring them to be on duty around the clock without extra pay.
The case pits a personal trainer, a bodyguard and a children’s tutor against Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and her husband.
In their response, filed to the federal court in Manhattan, the Qatari couple deny the allegations and insist they are protected by diplomatic immunity.
But the suit promises a wave of potentially embarrassing headlines about life inside the Qatari royal court and its extravagant lifestyle.
“Noblesse oblige apparently does not apply to the household workers employed by the Al Thanis family, one of the wealthiest families in the world,” said Ariadne Panagopoulou, one of the lawyers representing the workers, “a family conferred with the title of royalty.”
The case hinges on allegations that the Qatari royals broke New York and federal labour laws with contracts that expressly ruled out overtime payments.
Benjamin Boyd said he left a post at the University of Chicago’s school of divinity to take on an $80,000 post, working 40 hours a week, as tutor to the couple’s four children in September last year, according to court documents. However, he was also expected to accompany one of the children during recreational activities such as horse-riding.
He alleges that he quickly found himself working 50 hours a week. But when he raised the matter of overtime he was fired by Sheikha al Mayassa the next morning without being paid for any of the time he worked, according to court documents.
Graham Bancroft was employed as a personal trainer from 2015 to October 2018 at a salary of £4160 per month. The suit claims that he was required to travel with the family around the US and to Europe and Doha, and was expected to stay up until the family’s children had gone to bed.
That meant he would often work 90-hour, seven-day weeks without any overtime pay.
His contract was terminated without the specified four-week notice period, according to the suit.
And Chantelle McGuffie was taken on as personal security detail for Sheikha Al Mayassa in March last year. Again she frequently found herself working seven-day weeks and 14-hour days on trips abroad without overtime.
Her contract was also terminated without notice and she did not receive her final pay cheque, according to the suit.
The text of her contract stated: “While travelling with the Principal, days off will not be granted. During these times, all staff is required to be on duty at all times without extra pay.”
The suit accuses the defendants of multiple breaches of New York employment law, including failure to record hours worked and paying overtime.
“These illegal agreements were drafted solely by the defendants and plaintiffs were required to accept their terms, or else forfeit their jobs,” it reads.
Their demands stand in stark contrast to the lifestyle of one of the world’s wealthiest couples.
New York’s tabloid newspapers have pored over renovations at their luxury home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where they knocked two mansions into one. At 45,000 square feet it was reputed to be New York City’s biggest single family home, complete with indoor swimming pool.
It included an entire floor for servants. That was before 2017, when Qatar bought an adjacent townhouse for $41m to be used by staff, according to The New York Post.
In recent years Sheikha al Mayassa, daughter of Qatar’s founding emir, has emerged as one of the world’s most influential art buyers. As chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority, she is reported to control a budget of $1 billion a year which she has wielded to headline-grabbing effect.
In 2011 she directed the acquisition of Cezanne's Card Players for $250 million setting a record for the most expensive painting in the world. Two years later she was behind the purchase of Gauguin's When Will You Marry Me? which at the time was believed to have set a new record until court documents revealed it had sold for $210 million.
She has also reportedly bought modern masterpieces by Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko.
But lawyers for their former staff allege the couple cheated maids and domestic workers out of the rightful earnings with unlawful work contracts. They plan to bring a class action suit.
“There are very good grounds to believe that all of the domestic personnel that worked for the royal household in New York were also victims of wage and hour theft,” said Ms Panagopoulou.
“The law firm will be asking the court to permit them to send court-authorised notices to those workers, alerting them of their rights to join this lawsuit without suffering any type of retaliation.”
In a response to the complaint, the defendants denied violating any laws or that the plaintiffs were owed any money.
They added that the allegations “must be dismissed because of defendants’ diplomatic status and attendant diplomatic immunity”, in a filing submitted by the New York law firm of Proskauer Rose.
It comes soon after it emerged that a former receptionist at the Qatar embassy in London is attempting to raise £25,000 so he can take legal action against his ex-employers over claims of racial discrimination. Mohamoud Ahmed, 79, claims he suffered verbal and physical abuse from a Qatari diplomat, who called him a “black slave” and assaulted him.