What you need to know:
- When workers ask to leave formally, they have to refund the “procurement” fee that was paid to their agents when they acquired them.
- Many times since their salaries are withheld or less than what was promised, they are unable to buy their freedom, leaving them trapped in indentured servitude.
Kuwait was in the news recently following a 12-second video that was posted online, of a maid falling seven floors from a window. The video was filmed and uploaded onto social media by her employer, a Kuwaiti woman. The maid is an Ethiopian woman.
The Kuwaiti woman has since been arrested for not making an attempt to rescue her maid – who called out for help before falling. And the Ethiopian woman is said to have been rescued and taken to a hospital with a broken arm, and bleeding nose and ears. She has told media from her hospital bed that she was not trying to commit suicide but rather was “trying to escape from the woman who tried to kill me.” She is not the first report of harassment of domestic workers in the Gulf States, and unfortunately, she is unlikely to be the last.
But even as the reports of harassment, gruesome torture and sexual violence come in, thousands of African migrants continue to make perilous journeys to their own version of the Promised Land. On a recent trip to Tororo, I overheard a conversation between women continuing on to Nairobi where they would travel by air to Oman to work as domestic help. At the time, the government after unrelenting stories of abuse at the hands of employers, had restricted domestic workers’ travel through Entebbe. The border at Malaba accorded these women anonymity as they went about their journey to new opportunities and a better life for themselves and their families. In the taxi, they called several family members and friends to say goodbye. One of them called her daughter’s teacher. She wanted to know if the teacher could tutor her child outside class. She told her she did not have money to pay for the extra lessons but would be able to compensate the teacher handsomely once she got to her destination. I mulled over how difficult the circumstances must have been such that they could not face their families to bid them farewell. Were they afraid that they would be talked out of what they were doing? Were they sworn to secrecy?
They like many others, probably paid unscrupulous middlemen the monetary sum of their entire existence, having sold assets and borrowed heavily to afford a journey that more and more ends in misery and sometimes death. With the promise of hundreds of dollars a month, they imagine that they will pay off this debt easily. This however, is more often than not the happy ending they get. A 2015 Human Rights Watch report on the situation of domestic workers in Oman is full of harrowing tales of sexual, verbal and physical abuse. Many of the stories told re-awaken images of slavery in the American south. From recruitment agencies putting women on display like merchandise to workers escaping only to be returned to their “masters” and severely punished; sometimes locked up for days, beaten or denied food.
When workers ask to leave formally, they have to refund the “procurement” fee that was paid to their agents when they acquired them. Many times since their salaries are withheld or less than what was promised, they are unable to buy their freedom, leaving them trapped in indentured servitude. Aware of this, the government has banned export of domestic workers to Oman until conditions improve. Now the trade has moved underground – via taxis to a less monitored Malaba border point.
The way I see it, this is modern day slavery dressed up as investment and employment, and our government is complicit in its proliferation. Because the workers’ remittances make up a sizable chunk of our economy. The ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development has signed non-binding bi-lateral agreements with some Gulf States to which these women flock, and licensed agencies that supply these services, effectively legitimising this business.
Speaking about a recent agreement with Saudi Arabia, Uganda’s ambassador to the Kingdom, Mr Rashid Semuddu, praised the level of education of Ugandan recruits as “very high” and that they would be of “an outstanding added value to the Saudi Kingdom because they can also work as English-language teachers or nannies.” For what purpose is education if this is the future we are planning for our children?
We should hang our heads in shame that the best we can accord our very highly educated youth is jobs as nannies. It should grate at our conscience that our country profits off the exploitation of its people. Why does it not?
Perhaps because our advocacy would remind us that we treat our own help here at home just as badly or that our children have their futures secured and could never be as desperate as to be the help. The buck starts with us and stops with the government whose duty remains to create opportunities for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Nelson Mandela once said, as long as poverty persists, there is no true freedom. There is no true freedom in these women’s choices.
Ms Eryenyu is interested in women and girls’ issues related to economic justice, leadership and governance, and health. [email protected]