Alagi Yorro Jallow

The infelicitous ‘sad truth’ of our unsung African heroines hired as domestic workers still face ‘abuse and fraud’ who are marooned in the Gulf countries – deprived of freedom, human dignity and the money they moved abroad for – is instructive.

The fabulosity of our African women should be aware that their pursuit for a better life must always be conducted in the most circumspect manner lest it ends in pain and tears, like some women who are in bondage in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatari and possibly other countries not only in the Persian Gulf but elsewhere.

The prevailing economic hardships are forcing a respectable number of hard working women to look abroad for a better life, but some end up worse off than they were at home. These domestic workers will always find an alternative plan – we see many of them actively seeking jobs in the oil-rich Gulf region. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar have become choice destinations for skilled and unskilled personnel alike. It is inhospitably hot in the Arabian Desert – up to 48 degrees Celsius in summer at low elevation – but these maids are attracted by the promise of many job opportunities and high salaries.

It doesn’t always end well for some. There are stories that some these maidservants are left exposed to sexual exploitation, extremely harsh working conditions under which the promised hefty salaries don’t come, food is scarce, and the average working day is 20 hours. In a conservative country where women are not allowed to walk alone and without papers, those abused domestic workers stand the risk of arrest and police harassment.

There is such a massive failure in African diplomacy here. But will African governments listen?

In 1945, somewhere far off on a boat in the middle of the sea, a secret meeting was held between Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz and US President, Franklin Roosevelt. The King said– I’ve got lots of oil, and you need it. Roosevelt said– And we’ve got lots of military power, you need it. And there started that “special” relationship, a pact still in operation: oil for security. Saudi grew rich and powerful and never suffered that oil/resource curse that comes with local people being impoverished, displaced or killed off because of poorly negotiated deals between greedy and myopic politicians and powerful countries.

Migrant domestic workers, hold banners demanding basic labor rights as Lebanese workers, during a march at Beirut’s seaside, Lebanon, Sunday, April 28, 2013. Photo: Hussein Malla/AP

Africa is a weak militarily but obviously has labor resources Saudis need. Saudi Arabia is a laugh, like a fly wagging a finger at a fly swatter. Railing against the depraved Saudi masters on social media won’t work either. Evil is evil. Africa need some smart diplomacy to build labor transfer programs that protect and benefit African citizens looking for employment abroad in places they are needed. Aren’t we tired of our people being enslaved all the time when we have the smarts to prevent it? We just lack political will.

Domestic workers are often forced to do jobs that are not stipulated in the contract. In November 2015, the Saudi Labor Ministry amended the labor law to prohibit employers from confiscating passports and failing to pay salaries on time. However, not much has changed.

According to the Human Rights Watch Organization, Saudi Arabia operates under kafala (visa sponsorship) system that ties a migrant worker’s visa to their employers or sponsors. This gives the sponsors excessive control over the employees and leeway to abuse them. So, what happens if a domestic worker dies in Saudi Arabia?

For instance, the sponsor can confiscate the worker’s passport and could fail to pay salaries on time or fail to provide copies of the contract to the employee.

Although other governments banned recruitment agencies from recruiting domestic workers to the Middle East, this ban does not include those offering professional labor in banking, financial, health and oil sectors. Despite the ban, thousands of women still fall prey to unscrupulous agents.

The process of going to Saudi Arabia usually involves four parties: the local agency, the domestic worker, a recruiting company based in Saudi Arabia and an employer or a sponsor who is looking to hire.

The employer or sponsor approaches the Saudi recruiting agency for a domestic worker which, in turn, contacts the local agency. Often, there is usually a fifth party — a broker — who introduces the domestic workers to the local recruiting agency, at a fee.

There are estimates of thousands of African domestic workers living in Saudi Arabia alone. About 70 per cent of these are domestic workers as part of the hidden migrant workers whom the United Nation’s International Labor Organization says are likely to face abuse and exploitation in their place of work.

A United Nations report released earlier this month warned that more needed to be done to prevent the exploitation and abuse of domestic workers in the Middle East.

The “implementation and enforcement remain major challenges and continuing and credible allegations of abuse and fraudulent behavior continue to plague the sector”, the International Labor Organization (ILO), a UN agency, report said.

ILO estimated that nearly one in five of the world’s migrant domestic workers live in the Middle East, a total of 3.16 million people of which 1.6 are women — although the organization claims that may be a conservative estimate.

“Important progress has been made over the last few years by a number of countries in the Middle East towards legislative change to protect migrant workers,” the ILO report read.

“Yet implementation and enforcement remain major challenges and continuing and credible allegations of abuse and fraudulent behavior continue to plague the sector.”

According to the organization, existing laws are often not followed, pointing to its survey of employer attitudes in Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait, where it says there is “a significant degree of misinformation and noncompliance with existing laws and regulations”.

“The studies also revealed tensions between the expectations of workers and employers, and mismatches of skills, which remain largely unaddressed,” the report continued.

The organization said it would support governments in reforming the system.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Development has acknowledged the kingdom has problems with workers’ rights, but the Government has also often said Islamic law ensured protection for both Muslims and non-Muslims and reminded foreigners they were guests in the country.

The Ministry has urged people not to get involved in ads selling or leasing the services of domestic workers on social media by unlicensed authorities or individuals. It said it is monitoring such violations and transferring them to competent authorities for punishment.