Migrant Nightmares: Ethiopian Domestic Workers in the Gulf

Employment opportunities in Ethiopia are scarce, particularly for young women with only a basic education from rural areas where 85% of the population live. Many 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% 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. Women that head to the Gulf are overwhelmingly single, between 20 and 30 years of age, and according to the Ministry of Labour and Special Affairs (MOLSA) 70% are Muslim.  Almost a quarter cannot read or write.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in its 2011 report on Ethiopia documents a “huge increase in migration in and from Ethiopia, in particular by the youth,” — under 20’s make up 50% of the 85 million population. The numbers migrating to the Arabia Peninsula via all routes are increasing, with over 70,000 in 2011 making the perilous journey to Yemen, from where they seek somehow to find a way to other Gulf  States. UNHCR Briefing Notes (20 January 2012) found that many Ethiopian arrivals still say they left home because of a lack of economic and livelihood opportunities. As economic migrants they see Yemen as a transit country. Naive and vulnerable they go with hope in their hearts in order to support their families and build a decent life for themselves, realising not 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 a month which, compared to the $12 a month maids are paid in Ethiopia, is a small fortune and 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), who work directly with employers or agencies in the relevant Gulf country. MOLSA say 30,000 a year are processed through these channels, and estimate 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. Bina Fernandez, in “Ethiopian Domestic Workers in The Gulf”, quotes the husband of  the owner of Sabrine PEA, one of Ethiopia’s oldest agents:  “I am in the business of exporting cattle from Ethiopia, while my wife exports women, and let me tell you, it is easier to export cattle [because there are fewer government regulations to comply with].”

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates there is between 53 and 100 million domestic workers worldwide, who clean, cook, and care for children and the elderly. Within the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) a staggering 50% of the 35 million population are migrant workers. In the UAE around 150,000 families employ 300,000 domestic workers and according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, “Walls at Every Turn“, Kuwait has 660,000 migrant domestic workers.  That’s one for every two Kuwaiti’s. Extraordinary numbers, and still these workers have little or no legal labour protection and are not even considered employees within labour laws of the GCC. Lebanon’s Labor Code exclude trafficked domestic workers or ‘servants’ as they refer to them, from legal protection, no limit is placed on the hours a ‘servant’ can work or how many days per week, giving employers unlimited control.

There is, it seems, an unwritten contract between the Gulf dynasties and their citizens. The populace agrees to the regime’s unquestioned legitimacy in exchange for oil revenues being used to subsidise state welfare systems. Importing migrant workers to undertake the dirty work is part of this bargain. Bina Fernandez explains:  “The state provides a leisured life in exchange for complete political control.”  An important ingredient in such self-indulgent lifestyles is 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 Indonesian and Sri Lankan, 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.

Khafala Ownership

At the poisoned heart of the migrant domestic workers employment system throughout the GCC is the Khafala sponsorship. The scheme effectively grants ownership of migrants to the employer, fuels trafficking and all manner of abuse and exploitation.  Bina Fernandez says that the “Workers’ legal presence in the country is tied to the Khafala, (sponsor/employer) who invariably confiscates their passports in order to control them.” HRW, in its report on trafficking, “As If I Am Not Human”, 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 Khafala denies workers all independent rights, and creates a dangerous imbalance between employer and employee, placing all power with the sponsor. Workers’ freedom of movement is completely restricted by the employer.  They can be confined to the house for weeks or months, and 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 that:

(1) everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state; and,

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

In addition to enabling extensive abuse and exploitation of workers, employees seeing a business opportunity sell sponsorships to other families. This fuels resistance to its abolition, called for by human rights groups. Khafala is a major obstacle to the implementation of universal Labor 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

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 employer’s home, where commonly they disappear. As HRW Head of Women’s Rights, 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 employer’s house women are at risk of all manner of abuse.  HRW, in its far reaching report, “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 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, UAE and Kuwait but pointedly, not Lebanon or indeed Ethiopia, defines trafficking as amongst other things, “(a) 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 Khafala sponsorship and the entrapment of workers within employers’ homes. Exploitation is also a key element in the legal criteria for trafficking.  The UN Protocol states, “the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual prostitution and forced labour, or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude.”

One further 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 moving employer are often passed on to women workers, many of which “find that deductions of 90 to 100 percent of their salaries are withheld to cover recruitment and placement fees. Depending on the country, migrant domestic workers may work for three to ten months without ever receiving a wage.” (HRW in “As If I am Not Human”.) 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. As HRW records: “Some were under 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 recognisable 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 (DWC)” documents many cases including this one in Saudi Arabia.  “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 is commonplace, and leads many women to despair.

The Arab Times reports a stream of cases; for instance, on the 27th February 2012, “Police are looking for a 23 year old Ethiopian housemaid who ran away from her sponsor’s house… after her sponsors three sons raped her.” The same news source documents the case of “An Ethiopia housemaid [who] died after her Kuwaiti sponsor (allegedly) beat her.” The 2011 annual report on trafficking (US Secretary of State Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons), ranks Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait is Tier 3 – the lowest possible category.

According to the report all three are destination countries for women and children subject to forced labour, sex trafficking and myriad forms of abuse, including severe beatings, slapping and attacks using weapons, such as shoes, belts, sticks, electrical cables and kitchen items. In some cases the HRW report states “physical abuse is so severe it has lead 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. Shame on the Ethiopian authorities, who once again displayed indifference to the needs of their citizens. The Guardian (9/4/12) claims: “Alem’s case has lifted the lid on the plight of migrant workers in Lebanon… HRW says 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 in sleep even, which is often denied workers imprisoned and enslaved within many Gulf households, where they can be forced to sleep in store-rooms, cupboards, 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.  HRW in DWC states: “In some cases domestic workers are literally starved.” Such inhumane treatment pushes the most vulnerable to self-harm, causes mental breakdowns and, in deep despair, suicide.

Some attempt to flee their employer and escape the torment; however, 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 loose 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 Consulate, who is guilty of neglecting all domestic workers and regard freelancers as delinquents who have broken their employment contract. They fail 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 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 offenses being currently 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,” it “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.

It is a long overdue legislative structure that will enter into legal force one year after ratification by two countries, (2013 earliest).  Urgent and sustained pressure needs to be applied on all states to ratify this important convention. It is time long overdue that domestic migrant workers be lifted out of the shadows of slavery, abuse and exploitation into the light of decency and respect where their human and moral rights are adhered too.

In a positive move Saudi Arabia and the UAE have proposed new laws, which albeit inadequate and full of contradictions, at least recognise 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 domestic labour laws 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 support, establish female support groups and demand justice where complaints of mistreatment are investigated and substantiated. Within Ethiopia long-term measures 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.
Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.