Sarah spent three days in October working on just one mission: to help a domestic worker escape an abusive household. She reached out to everyone she knew in and around Jeddah and eventually managed to secure a 9-hour car ride straight to the worker's country’s in Riyadh. The embassy then helped the woman get a flight back home and out of Saudi Arabia once and for all.
“Her employer was going to kill her and she had to get out,” Sarah says. “She was messaging her family back home. They were asking everyone they could for help, which is how I found out about this. Luckily, I managed to get her out. She is back home and undergoing trauma recovery.”
Sarah doesn’t want to reveal her real name or the country she's from. She insists that her work is only possible if she maintains total anonymity, as any spotlight would make it much harder to do the work she does. Seven years ago, Sarah herself endured exploitation as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. After returning home, she got involved in a project to support African domestic workers in the Gulf, run entirely by a handful of women on Whatsapp, Facebook, and other social media channels.
“I wanted to get a better job as I have finished my schooling and even got a diploma but there was nothing back home. I had to support myself and so I migrated to Saudi Arabia for whatever job I could get,” she says. “But I could not handle the abuse I faced so I came back somehow. It was very hard at first but things are better now and I have helped over a dozen women escape death.”
She believes that African women working as domestic workers are especially vulnerable to abuse.
“I don’t want to talk about who has it worse since all domestic workers are in terrible condition. But our experiences as African women, especially those who aren’t Muslims in the Gulf region, are so unique and not being addressed at all. Nobody is helping us.”
There is better awareness about the abuse migrant workers face in the region because of increased media coverage, Whatsapp forwards, and stories shared word-of-mouth by returnees like Sarah.
“And if you go to them with a complaint about the work or employer, they will rape or hurt you. This is how they threaten you to quietly do your job.”
Despite bans, work migration from Africa to the Middle East is on the rise
African governments are also contending with the reality of their citizens' experience in the region, and this has sometimes resulted in partial or complete bans on labour migration to the Gulf countries. But there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the bans do not stop people from migrating abroad for work, and only increases their vulnerability as they shift to using irregular channels and dubious agents.
Uganda imposed a temporary ban on labour migration to Middle Eastern countries in 2016, but the country’s Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development believes that the number of Ugandans working in the Middle East is still rising every year.
A Monitor article published in May 2019 states that while official figures put Ugandan migrant workers in the region at 31,859 between 2016 and 2018 (21,716 of them being domestic workers in Saudi Arabia), the total number of Ugandan migrant workers in the Middle East in the last decade could be over 100,000.
Similarly, the number of Ethiopian workers migrating through irregular channels rose following the government's ban on labour migration to several GCC countries in 2013, in reaction to the expulsion of over 100,000 Ethiopians from Saudi Arabia the same year.
Ethiopia lifted the ban in 2018 after signing a bilateral labour agreement with Saudi Arabia. Tens of thousands of domestic workers arrived in Saudi Arabia in the first few months after its signing, making it the most popular country of destination for Ethiopian migrants.
The Ghanaian government also banned labour migration to the Middle East and withdrew private employment agencies’ licenses in 2017 but that has not stopped migrants and agencies from operating through unofficial channels.
Lina is from Ghana and is currently an undocumented domestic worker in Jeddah. She came to Saudi in 2017 through an unregistered recruitment agency and says that she signed an employment contract that was never implemented.
She was told she would be working as a barista in the UAE, and that Saudi Arabia would only be a transit point. Lina says she explicitly told the agent that she did not want to work in Saudi Arabia because of the stories she had heard from returnees, which indicated that she would be more prone to religious harassment there than in other Gulf countries.
Concerns about harassment and discrimination are common among Christian African migrant workers headed to Saudi Arabia. Lina says she heard about regular insults over their religious backgrounds, and cases of employers indirectly pressuring workers to convert to Islam. There is also an understanding amongst many domestic workers that they are more vulnerable to sexual harassment and considered promiscuous because they are not (or do not ‘look’) Muslim – including among Filipino migrant workers, who generally perceived to be treated better.
“There is abuse in all Arab countries but I know more people in UAE so I thought that would help me feel more secure. I also wanted to grow in my career and experience a life I couldn’t have back home and I could see it happening from the job I had signed up for. Now, I am forced to wear a hijab and live most of my life cleaning someone’s house that feels like a jail. I am not a Muslim and don’t want to wear a hijab.”
She receives a monthly salary of SR650(USD$170) which is significantly lower than the SR3000(USD$800) she was told she would be paid. Delays in the payments and long work hours are common, but if she wants to go back home, she has to pay a large fee to her agent.
“Illegal agencies are the worst, nobody should come here through them,” she says. “They will lie to you endlessly before they have taken your money and once you are here, you are entirely at their mercy because you are illegal and cannot even go to the police. And if you go to them with a complaint about the work or employer, they will rape or hurt you. This is how they threaten you to quietly do your job.”
Employers can be penalised with heavy fines if caught employing workers irregularly, but often take the risk because it's significantly cheaper than paying for visas, insurance, and other compulsory minimum costs associated with legal recruitment. They also enjoy significant power over workers because they are undocumented, and therefore vulnerable to detention and deportation.
“I know women whose employers have returned them to the agents when they become too sick and weak from the abuse and asked for someone younger and healthier,” she says. “We are not seen as humans, nobody does this to another human.”
Despite these risks, many migrant workers choose this route if a legal channel is not a viable option due to the possibility of financial prosperity.
“I am forced to wear a hijab and live most of my life cleaning someone’s house that feels like a jail. I am not a Muslim and don’t want to wear a hijab.”
Regular or irregular, abuse is constant
Even though irregular recruiters pose major risks to migrant workers because of how difficult it is to hold them accountable, registered recruitment agencies are also responsible for a lot of the violence migrant domestic workers face.
Molara is a domestic worker from Ethiopia who came to Saudi Arabia through a registered agency. She works 18 hours on most days because she is expected to work not only at her employer’s house, but also those of her employer's three adult children who all live with their respective families nearby. Forcing domestic workers to work in other households is illegal under Saudi's domestic worker law.
She says her health continues to deteriorate and she often steals medicines from the employer’s cabinet to self-medicate.
“I don’t get enough food,” she says. “And given how much work I do, I feel that it is affecting my health a lot. I come from a culture that eats a lot of meat and I get mostly vegetables and some rice or bread a day. My body cannot adjust to this. I always have a headache, my periods are not regular, and I faint a lot.” She added that she is not allowed to eat during fasting hours in Ramadan, though her workload then is even larger.
The migrant worker Sarah helped escape earlier this year also reported similar experiences, in addition to sexual abuse. “One of the sons of her employer was raping her and she kept it a secret for a long time because she wanted to keep her job,” Sarah states. She is currently in a recovery program at home. “The word eventually got out but, of course, nobody said anything to the son. The family started beating her for being a bad kafir woman. She feared for her life, luckily we managed to get her out.”
Exclusion from labour laws
Wage theft is one of the most prevalent forms of exploitation that migrant domestic workers face.
On multiple occasions, Lina and Molara's wages were also withheld for as long as three months. Wage delays are common for migrant workers, regardless of the field of work, but are especially prevalent amongst domestic workers who are often not paid electronically, and lack inclusion in Wage Protection Systems.
Domestic workers in Saudi Arabia are not covered by the general labour laws of the country and fall under a separate category of ‘home workers’. Even though the set of laws that cover domestic workers also does specify that workers must be paid in full and on time, there is little to no mechanism to ensure employers pay them on time.
All other workers that are covered by the generic labour laws of the country are further protected, to a relatively greater extent, by a Wage Protection System (WPS) that was rolled out in the past few years and requires employers to upload their monthly payrolls into the system to ensure wages are paid on time and in full.
Although imperfect in both design and implementation, the WPS can put some pressure on employers and provides an avenue for accountability should workers not get paid. Employers who do not pay workers on time or partially withhold wages are – at least in theory – penalised SR3000 per worker, and employers that fail to pay wages for two months should be fined SR10,000 each month until due wages are paid.
Domestic workers are, again, excluded from all these regulations. While including domestic workers in the labour law seems an obvious first step to improving their working conditions, Sarah doesn't thinks that would be enough.
“I don’t think the labour laws are that good at protecting those that it is supposed to protect that much anyways. If an employer wants to abuse you or not pay you, they will still find a way to get away with it,” she says. “I don’t know much about laws so I cannot comment on that matter but I think changing the laws will not really change much.”
Her priority since returning home is to provide guidance to migrants headed for Saudi Arabia and to help those in distress. African NGOs are also advocating for more protection, more consular staff who are better trained, as well as embassy shelters in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Many African countries that send migrant workers to Saudi Arabia only have an embassy in Riyadh. Given the geographical breadth of the country and the number of workers in need of support, the missions are overstretched (several Asian countries have at least one additional consulate in Jeddah to account for this). These missions are already frequently under-resourced, as they often cater to citizens in neighbouring Gulf countries that do not have an embassy.
“A major issue for domestic workers facing abuse and seeking help is getting to Riyadh,” says a staffer at Kenya’s consulate in Riyadh. He does not want to be named. “And we also don’t have enough resources to cater to all the help and shelter needs of domestic workers in Riyadh alone. I don’t think this is just a problem with African embassies though. I think most countries that have a lot of migrant workers here face this.”
He also thinks bilateral agreements between African and Arab governments should at least be as favourable as those with Asian countries. The minimum wage for Ugandan domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is USD$200 while that for Filipino domestic workers is USD$400.
“Better oversight of the recruitment process can definitely help,” he adds. “As can more awareness about why irregular migration is dangerous.”
Sarah, however, insists that the focus should be on helping the many African domestic workers currently facing exploitation.
“The governments should do what they can to help and improve the conditions future domestic workers will face, but they should not forget that currently there are so many African women trapped in Saudi households who are slaves. I call on everyone who is able to, to help them escape.”
Photo caption and credit: Saudi returnees mill around the migrant rehabilitation centre waiting to hear information in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Dec 2013. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Ayene