Migrant nightmares: Ethiopian domestic workers in the Gulf

By IndepthAfrica
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Jul 4th, 2012
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by Graham Peebles

Graham Peebles charts the horrendous abuse faced by Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Lebanon where they are traded by unscrupulous traffickers – “not brokers/agents in any recognizable, legitimate sense of the word, but common criminals engaged in human trafficking and the destruction of lives”.

Employment opportunities in Ethiopia are scarce, particularly for young women with only a basic education who live in rural areas, where 85 per cent of the population reside. ManyEthiopian domestic workers travel to the towns and cities in search of work, only to discover a barren job scene. The World Bank puts unemployment at 20.5 per cent with a quarter of all 15-24 year olds being out of work. Unable to find anything in Ethiopia, some venture further afield, to the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Lebanon and even Yemen. Women that head to the Gulf are overwhelmingly single, between 20 and 30 years of age and, according to Ministry of Labour and Special Affairs (MOLSA), 70 per cent are Muslim and almost a quarter cannot read or write.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), in its 2011 report on Ethiopia, documents a “huge increase in migration in and from Ethiopia, in particular by the youth” –50 per cent of Ethiopia’s 85 million people are under 20 years of age. The numbers of economic migrants travelling to the Arabian peninsula via all routes is increasing, with over 70,000 in 2011 making the hazardous journey to Yemen from where they seek somehow to find a way to other Gulf states. Naive and vulnerable, they go with hope in their hearts in order to support their families and build a decent life for themselves, not realizing the servitude and exploitation that all too often awaits them.

Agents and Gulf numbers

Migrant domestic workers in Gulf countries can expect to earn 100-150 US dollars a month. Compared to the 12 dollars a month maids are paid in Ethiopia, this is a small fortune and is the carrot that lures so many innocent and desperate. There are two “official” channels for women looking to work in the Gulf: the “public” migrant workers, registered with MOLSA, who secure work through personal contacts abroad, and the 110 private employment agencies (PEA) which work directly with employers or agencies in the relevant Gulf country. MOLSA says 30,000 a year are processed through these channels, and estimates that a further 30,000 pass through illegal brokers; these may be individuals or companies, many of which are little more than criminal traffickers.

The PEAs and illegal brokers are overwhelmingly Muslim, commonly import-export traders in commodities who have diversified into trading people. These “brokers” see the women looking for work as simply another commodity to be packaged and sold. They know well the world in which they send the unsuspecting and care not.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there is between 53 and 100 million domestic workers worldwide and that, within the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), a staggering 50 per cent of the GCC’s population of 35 million are migrant workers. In the UAE around 150,000 families employ 300,000 domestic workers and, according to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report “Walls at every turn”, “Kuwait has 660,000 migrant domestic workers”, one for every two Kuwaitis. Extraordinary figures, and still these workers have little or no legal labour protection and are not even considered employees within labour laws in the GCC.

There is, it seems, an unwritten contract between the Gulf dynasties and their citizens. The populace agrees to the regimes’ unquestioned legitimacy in exchange for oil revenues being used to subsidize state welfare systems. Importing migrant workers to undertake the dirty work is part of this bargain. As the academic Bina Fernandez explains, “the state provides a leisured life in exchange for complete political control”. An important ingredient in such self-indulgent lifestyles are domestic workers, a luxurious commodity and status symbol in a world built on image and materiality. Filipina women shine bright at the top of the human bling chain, followed by Indonesians and Sri Lankans, with African/Ethiopian women at the bottom. Human beings reduced to assets, to be used and abused as their owners see fit. Such is the attitude of many Gulf families to the fragile, lonely, isolated women in their charge.

Kafala ownership

At the poisoned heart of the migrant domestic workers employment system throughout the GCC is the Kafala (Arabic for bond or bail) sponsorship. The scheme effectively grants ownership of migrants to the employer, and fuels trafficking and all manner of abuse and exploitation.

As Bina Fernandez explains, the “Workers’ legal presence in the country is tied to the Kafala … who invariably confiscates their passports in order to control them”. In its report “As if I am not human”, HRW states that the system “creates a profound power imbalance between employers and workers and imposes tight restrictions on migrant workers’ rights.” Domestic workers sleep, eat and work within the home of their employer, who they are completely dependent upon, legally and practically. Living with the family places the women in a highly vulnerable position.

The Kafala denies workers all independent rights, and creates a dangerous imbalance between employer and employee, placing all power with the sponsor. The workers’ freedom of movement is completely restricted by the employer; they can be confined to the house for weeks or months, in many cases women are forced to continue working long past the completion of their contract and are not allowed to return home. This imprisonment contravenes Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states (1) “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

Kafala is a major obstacle to the implementation of universal labour Laws and international human rights conventions. It must be dismantled as a matter of urgency and safeguards protecting the rights of migrant workers accepted and implemented throughout the Gulf region.

Traffickers and servitude

Upon arriving in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Beirut and Kuwait City airports, women are routinely met by a local agent, who is all too often instrumental in their exploitation and trafficking. The women are corralled into a special area of the airport, their passports and mobile phones confiscated, and they are driven to their employers’ home, where commonly they disappear. As the head of women’s rights at HRW, Liesl Gerntholtz, says, “What is particularly striking about domestic workers is their invisibility. Once they come to the country, they disappear into people’s homes.” Isolated and held tightly within their employers’ houses, women are at risk of all manner of abuse. As HRW says in its far reaching report, “The domestic workers convention: turning new global labour standards into change on the ground”, states, “domestic workers are typically isolated and shielded from public scrutiny … are at heightened risk of mistreatment, including physical, sexual and psychological abuse; food deprivation and forced confinement.”

Much of the mistreatment that domestic workers are subjected to constitutes trafficking. The United Nations “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children”, signed and ratified by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait but pointedly, not Lebanon or indeed Ethiopia, defines trafficking as, among other things, “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power”. This clearly covers the Kafala sponsorship and the entrapment of workers within employers’ homes.

Another form of imprisonment that comes under the trafficking umbrella is debt bondage. Many Ethiopian women are tied into deeply exploitative and damaging working sentences by debt bondage, or bonded/forced labour. Inflated fees charged by unscrupulous agents for placing workers, or spurious charges levied for changing employers, are often passed onto women workers. According to the HRW report “As if I am not human”, many women “find that deductions of 90 to 100 per cent of their salaries are withheld to cover recruitment and placement fees. Depending on the country, migrant domestic workers may work for three to 10 months without ever receiving a wage.”

This “debt” is used to trap them in servitude. Some report being held “captive” without their passport, their wages withheld for the full two-year term, while others, according to HRW, face “direct or indirect threat from employers or agents of being trafficked into forced prostitution, charged substantial fines if they did not finish their contracts, or being abandoned far from home”. These are not brokers/agents in any recognizable, legitimate sense of the word, but common criminals engaged in human trafficking and the destruction of lives. It is time they were treated as such by the judicial system.

Violence and despair

The catalogue of reported cases of criminal treatment and physical abuse suffered by migrant workers, including murder, rape, beatings burning and verbal insults, is endless. The HRW report, “The domestic workers convention: turning new global labour standards into change on the ground”, documents many cases. One migrant worker, referring to her Saudi employer, said: “She beat me until my whole body burned. She beat me almost every day… She would beat my head against the stove until it was swollen. She threw a knife at me but I dodged it. This behavior began from the first week I arrived.”

Sexual harassment and abuse are commonplace and lead many women to despair. For example, on 27 February 2012 the Arab Times carried a report which said:  “Police are looking for a 23-year-old Ethiopian housemaid who ran away from her sponsor’s house … after her sponsor’s three sons raped her.” The same source recounted the case of an Ethiopia housemaid who “died after her Kuwaiti sponsor (allegedly) beat her”.

A 2011 US State Department annual report on trafficking viewed Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as destinations for women and children subject to forced labour, sex trafficking and myriad forms of abuse. In some cases, according to HRW, “physical abuse is so severe it has led to paralysis, blindness and death”.

The case of Alem Dechesa is the most widely publicized example of mistreatment. She supposedly hanged herself (unthinkable for an Orthodox Christian) in a mental health institution in Beirut after being dragged and beaten by the recruitment agent in front of the Ethiopian consulate where she had sought and been denied refuge. According to the Guardian newspaper on 4 April 2012, “Alem’s case has lifted the lid on the plight of migrant workers in Lebanon”. It cited HRW as saying that “one migrant worker dies each week in Lebanon from suicide or other causes”.

Sleepless in the Gulf

For many women there is no sanctity to be found even in sleep, which is often denied workers imprisoned and enslaved within many Gulf households. There, they can be forced to sleep in store-rooms, cupboards and utility rooms where they are acutely vulnerable to sexual abuse. Made to work from early morning until well into the night, with no days off, women have little or no rest and are often fed rotting or poor quality food. According to HRW, “in some cases domestic workers are literally starved”. Such inhumane treatment pushes the most vulnerable to self-harm, causes mental breakdowns and suicide.

Although some attempt to flee their employer and escape the torment, there are many dangers associated with running away. With no passport or money, women on the streets are in a precarious position: if caught by the police they risk being sexually abused, and may be returned to an enraged employer. In Lebanon workers who leave their employer’s house without permission automatically lose their legal status. Those that are not caught seek out other Ethiopian women living on the outside; the runaways live together in small rented rooms, take on freelance domestic work, sell illicit alcohol and resort to prostitution. They live hidden lives and are completely abandoned by the Ethiopian embassy, which is guilty of neglecting all domestic workers and regards freelancers as delinquents who have broken their employment contract. It fails to recognize the exploitation and mistreatment the women have suffered at the hands of abusive sponsors and agents, and their responsibility to protect their citizens in a foreign land.

Laws for the unprotected

Victims in a chain of usury and exploitation, migrant domestic workers trapped into slavery by poverty, lack of opportunity and the fear of worse need the protection written into international law to be enforced. In addition to the United Nations “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons”, which deals with many of the offences currently being committed, the great hope for domestic workers worldwide is the ILO “Domestic Workers Convention 189”.

Passed in June 2011, crucially with all Gulf states voting in favour, Convention 189 is a huge step forward in securing domestic workers’ labour rights. Ratifying states are required to ensure the effective promotion and protection of the human rights of all workers. As the ILO makes clear, “The landmark treaty setting standards for the treatment of domestic workers … has been widely hailed as a milestone” and “aims at protecting and improving the working and living conditions of domestic workers worldwide”. When implemented and enforced, domestic workers will finally have recourse to law and potentially much abuse and exploitation currently so prevalent would be largely eradicated.

In a positive move Saudi Arabia and the UAE have proposed new laws, which albeit inadequate and full of contradictions, at least recognize domestic workers as human beings entitled to the same rights as other employees. The rule of international law must be applied to and within Gulf states where widespread inhumane treatment of domestic workers takes place and where domestic labour laws must be reformed in line with international standards.

As Ethiopian migrant domestic workers are less expensive and easier to manipulate than other nationals, demand for them within the GCC and neighbouring states will no doubt continue. The Ethiopian government must, as a matter of urgency, begin to offer them assistance, establish female support groups and demand justice where complaints of mistreatment are investigated and substantiated. Within Ethiopia long-term measure in education and the creation of employment opportunities for women are essential. Tighter controls must be applied to recruitment agents and steps taken to root out illegal brokers involved in trafficking to Gulf states, where such horrendous abuse is allowed to take place, destroying the lives of so many vulnerable young women.

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