By Ivan Bwayo
Estimates suggest that 2.4 million domestic workers around the world live in forced servitude. Domestic workers in the Middle East have been traditionally recruited from Asia mostly the Philippines, Indonesia and India. But as cases of abuse were revealed, Asian countries tightened regulations to protect their workers. Because of this, recruiters in the Middle East started expanding into East Africa.
As many women travelled to the Middle East to go work as maids, they were hopeful of earning decent money to improve their lifestyle and also help their relatives. Unfortunately most of them returned home destitute and broken. As domestic workers, maids are excluded from labour laws in most Middle East states. There has been some progress – Jordan and Kuwait have adopted new laws covering domestic workers’ rights. Many Asian countries now verify contracts to check whether employers agree to a minimum salary and working conditions before allowing domestic workers to go abroad. India and Sri Lanka also require sponsors to provide security deposits that are returned once the worker has safely returned home.
Stories of African maids committing suicide or dying in the Middle East continue to emerge. If you are planning to go to the Middle East for greener pastures, think twice; as many women who have been employed in that region share tales of rape, torture and slavery. Few are lucky like Diana from Uganda who left her job earning ugx 500,000 a month to go to Riyad, with a promise of a good job of her profession with a salary of 1.2m or more. However, that was not the case when she reached her destined work place. The only opportunities available for were house maids and she refused to work. Sadly, she was confined in a room for two months so as to change her mind, but she did not.
They then called the Ugandan agents complaining of why they send girls who do not want to work. “They asked me to buy my own ticket and I told them i don’t have money and they told me to call my dad and I told them I didn’t have one. After some days, they brought me the ticket at midnight telling me you are going now, they took me and dropped me at the airport for the 3:00am flight and that was how I came back after 6 months,” she revealed.
Unlike Diana, luck was not on Hadijah’s side. She closed her small business in one of the markets in Kampala to go for greener pastures with promises of higher pay in Dubai. Unfortunately, life was not as good as she was told and she began regretting. She stayed for three months without a job because girls were many and from different nations who were waiting for the same opportunity and she began complaining to her bosses, telling them she wanted to come back home.
They took her from the group and locked her in a different place where she found other girls who also wanted to go home. She stayed Isolated for two weeks, and then they took her back to the others knowing she had reformed and ready to work, though, she was pretending. While in isolation, she was told by others that the only way one would be sent home was if she pretended to be mad and that was the plan she wanted to embark on. She was bought by a client to work as a house maid at his home but the conditions were unbearable. With over working, little food and less sleep, she decided to rebel after one month in that home and they sent her back to the agent who was very angry, but, she told him that she wanted to go back home.
After a week, she came to the agent’s office and removed her clothes. She began behaving like she had ran mad and the client got worried and took her to the imam for prayers “duwa” and she pretended to be sane again. After two weeks, she again came to the office, removed her clothes and tried to run out to the street pretending to be mad again and this time, the agent knew that she had really gone mad and the imam’s prayers had not worked. They calmed her down and told her that they were going to send her home. Her pretending to be mad also helped another girl come home because she could not be put on the plan alone so they had to get another girl to accompany her.
In Kenya, poverty and high unemployment has made the offer of work in the Middle East hard to refuse. “People think they are going to have a lot of money and become rich, but they don’t know that they are going to hell,” Halima narrated. The 34 year old was recruited in Mombasa to work as a tailor for a Saudi businessman but she says she arrived in Jeddah to find that his business was a brothel and her job was as a maid. Three months after arriving, she was gang-raped by her boss and his friends.
Mean while Adia was locked in a bathroom, starved, beaten and raped by her employer, all she wanted to do was quit, but it was near impossible. Kafala, the Middle East’s visa sponsorship system, allows employers to exploit loopholes — meaning that many maids cannot leave without their permission. If Adia ran away, she could have been arrested for absconding, returned to her abusive employer or even imprisoned.
The moment she arrived in Saudi Arabia, Adia’s passport was confiscated and she was forced to work 20 hours a day for no pay. Her boss, a policeman, raped her regularly. The only food she ate was the family’s leftovers. When the family left the house, she was locked inside. After almost two years of abuse, Adia threatened to kill herself and her employer finally agreed to send her back to Kenya. “I was just a slave. They tricked me and I was sold. I worked and worked. My boss would slap me and beat me. He said: ‘If you do not remove your clothes I will cut your neck,’” Adia, 24, told VICE News.
Some countries in East Africa have now banned domestic workers going to the Middle East after reports of abuse flooded in, but recruitment has merely gone underground. “Even if countries are banning workers from going to the Gulf in response to the abuse cases, it is an ineffective measure. Women still end up migrating there and will be less likely to be protected if they are abused,” says Rothna Begum from Human Rights Watch, one of many groups putting pressure on Middle Eastern countries to end Kafala. “People know about Kafala system, but nobody has raised it as a major point of concern,” he says. “This has been a formal slave trade for years.”
Many Asian countries now verify contracts to check whether employers agree to a minimum salary and working conditions before allowing domestic workers to go abroad. India and Sri Lanka also require sponsors to provide security deposits that are returned once the worker has safely returned home.
– Cooperate with labor-sending countries to conduct investigations into cases of abuse in a timely manner;
– Fulfill promises to reform or abolish the kafala system so that employers cannot summarily cause the repatriation of migrant workers, and so a worker does not require her or his employer’s consent to change jobs or obtain an exit visa to leave the country.
– Adopt the proposed annex to the labor law on domestic workers and ensure that it guarantees protections equal to those afforded to other workers, including a weekly day of rest where workers are free to leave the workplace.
– Conduct public awareness campaigns about domestic workers’ rights and provide complaints mechanisms geared to the needs of migrant domestic workers, including hotlines with staff who speak relevant languages and help desks at airports.
– Improve regulation and monitoring of recruitment agencies with an emphasis on ensuring provision of accurate and enforceable employment contracts.
– The diplomatic missions in Middle East should play a critical role in providing services for victims, like shelter and legal aid.
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