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Ill-prepared and uninformed, Ghanaian women risk it all for jobs in the Gulf

Many find themselves trafficked to Kurdistan and Iraq  

On April 28, 2023

In Ghana, if you come into the world a she, acquire the habit of praying. And master it. Because you will need it, desperately, as old age pursues you [...]

If, on top of this, your children, waging a desperate war of their own for economic survival, find themselves having too little time for you, count you among the forsaken and forgotten; [...]

– Amma Darko, The Housemaid

In Drobo, storefronts of petty traders and hairdressers line the packed-mud streets of orangish hue. On one such street, under a tree that provides just a little shade, a group of about three dozen women have assembled. Some with small babies, many with fake designer bags, all with a story. They break out into smaller groups and gather to exchange their war stories. Some of the women look impossibly young, to have put in three to four years of work abroad already.

Off the Kumasi-Sunyani highway not far from the Cote d’Ivoire border, and regional capital Sunyani, Drobo is one of the migration hubs of Ghana. The Bono region is not only where a large chunk of Ghanaian migrants hail from, but it is also a transit point for traffickers from neighbouring countries [see part II]. The group gathered here is a microcosm of the wider migration environment. As they open up, a pattern emerges. Many of the women were told they were being taken to the Gulf or to Kurdistan, and ended up in Iraq.

“We thought Kurdistan was also in the Gulf.”

All of them went through a ‘connection man’, having paid between GH₵‎3000 and GH₵‎5000 for the job. And for those who went to the place they were promised, they knew little of where they were situated. Viv, who spent three years in Iraq from 2019, says she had no idea she would end up in Iraq. Conny was expecting to go to Dubai, but in Addis Ababa where she was transiting, she was told she would go to Lebanon. Erika knew she was going to Saudi, but had no clue which part of the Kingdom she was going to.

But no matter where they ended up, the stories are similar. Even the ones who felt they had a good employer or not much trouble were paid less than they were promised, worked over 15 hours a day, and had no off day. A collective gallows laugh echoes when the topic of breaks or off days emerges, and even those who were quiet until then look sharp and jump in, insulted that this would even be a question.

“We work every day,” snaps Conny.

“24x7,” says Agnes.

“Sleep, shway-shway, all work,” Viv gestures, bunching her fingers.

“And the agents never answer when you want help,” says Erika.

“The agent will tell you Friday is off. But madam at home will say no, we paid money, we bought you, you have to work every day for that money. In fact, on Friday there’s extra work, as their friends and families will come, or you have to go to their homes,” says Lynne.

“The agent says that’s how it is, that we should just endure,” Agnes shakes her head in disbelief. “Sometimes the agent here says go to the office (in Saudi), but you go there you get slapped and beaten. No help from anyone.”

“We are not allowed to even talk to our friends. No kindness at all. If you are sick, you still work,” Viv’s decibel increases. She turns to her companions, and they have an aside in the local dialect.

Brushing off the interpreter, Viv says in surprisingly clear English, “the baba wanted to have sex with me and he grabbed my boobs. That man would force me to massage him, his private parts. They’d starve me if I didn’t comply. He was 60.” More than double Viv’s age. “You can’t complain. Mama knows, of course, but she makes this sign — ‘finger across the neck’ — every time I tried speaking up. Finally, I ran away to a friend’s house.

There is a flurry of discussion amongst the women, commiserating with each other, and sharing similar experiences.

“See what Clorox did to me.” Her skin is still tender even months after her return, a rash of ruptured boils all over her fingers.

Debased and degraded

Maata, who had also been taken to Kurdistan without her consent or knowledge, says “When the baba wanted to sleep with me, I told mama, and she accused me of sleeping with him already and beat me. She and her son beat me up. When I complained to the office (agency), they just brought me back to the house, they didn’t do anything about it. The children physically abuse you and the men sexually assault you, and you can do nothing.”

The conversation veers towards the worst tasks the women had to do, the worst treatment they endured. There is an outpouring of grief at the loss of dignity, and the inhumane ways in which they were treated. It is difficult to keep track of or facilitate a discussion.

“You had to wash these large, heavy carpets by hand. It was backbreaking work. And the children would mess it up so much,” says Juliana who worked in Dammam, Saudi for 4 years.

“You had to soak and rinse the large carpets by hand. After a point, I just refused to work,” says Agnes.

“Even when I had a fall, from the ladder, they took me to hospital, but just gave me a panadol and put me to work again. There was constant insults, abuse,” says Conny.

“The work was gruelling, and the employer would say if you die we will bury you here, not send you to Ghana,” says Rosina.

There is a burst of laughter. One of them says she had to wash the employer’s dentures by hand. “I won’t be able to eat after that.”

That sparks another round of shares.

“We had to clean the spittle tray. By hand.”

“And remove their used tissues, which they would leave around. No gloves.”

Erika, who worked for a family of nine in Riyadh for close to 3 years, says they’d make her wash the underwear, with menstrual blood on it, by hand. “Not even use the washing machine. We were treated with such disdain. And the girl will just drop her pads in the WC and I had to fish it out. No gloves. Nothing.”

“There was this old woman at home. I used my bare hands to clean everything, her pampers, the bathroom.”

“Then there’s Clorox,” one of them sighs.

“You know Clorox?” another asks.

“It’s not good. We have to use it too much at home. They don’t give gloves or masks, the fumes are too much.”

Conny shows her palms. “See what Clorox did to me.” Her skin is still tender even months after her return, a rash of ruptured boils all over her fingers. “Then I had to use hot water, that made it worse. They had a washing machine but wanted me to wash by hand.”

It’s not just the brutality of the work, but of words and treatment too, that the women still find difficult to come to terms with. That daily their humanity was chipped away at, to be made to feel less.

“As you are cleaning they will walk behind and touch the floor,” Maata says, “And they say our smell is not good. That we Ghanaian people, we don’t smell good.”

“Is it true? Do we smell?” Lynne demands to know.

“They cut my hair because they don’t like it. They have a problem with our hair.”

“We sleep on the balcony. Hot or cold. And we change in the bathhouse.”

“They say we are lazy, we don’t have money, we come from a poor country, we are like animals. I say nothing. It is not their fault, it’s my fault. I went there. If I hadn’t gone there they won’t be telling me all this,” Mariamma who spent several years in Dammam, Saudi, chides herself.

“We can’t sit on their chairs. We sit on the floor.”

“They think it’s ok to give leftover food.”

“And we can’t use their utensils. We have to use different cups. It really makes me feel so bad.”

There’s a chorus of ‘very bad, very bad’, as Maata blinks back her tears. The women who were soft-spoken become agitated, louder with anger and sadness, their focus on the voice recorder in front of them.

One of them looks apologetic.

“But, you seem nice.”

Her friends scoff at her.

“In the office when they come to take you they smile, and they say ‘habibti, habibti’. They will smile the way you smile now at us. All in the beginning. Then, when they take you to their house, they start screaming, they change.”

Scant preparation and no information

Most of the women claim they were 18 or 19 when they left Ghana, but a few years after their return, they look no more than 20 and are confused about their age. At the time of paperwork, they provide an age that would allow them to migrate, frequently inflating it by a few years. The connection man put together documents with information that would pass muster, regardless of its veracity. They all also knew about the ban and still went, paying money to the connection men and bribing the immigration officers.

Mariamma’s connection man was from Drobo, while she is from Adioko not far from there. “He arranged everything and I paid him back after I went to Saudi in 2016. But he couldn’t help me after.” She worked for a family of 13 in Dammam. She was the only domestic worker. “Everyone gives birth three to seven times. And just me doing everything. I would go to sleep at 2 am and wake up by 6 am. I have to take care of babies through the night. If I told them I was tired, they’d say that’s my job, so I have to do it.”

She was not allowed to return at the end of her contract, and then due to the pandemic, her return was further delayed. “I tried speaking to the agent, but he said Covid, so I have to wait. But during corona, the work was even more. Finally, I became so angry and stopped working. My passport and iqama had expired. So they took me to the office there in Riyadh. I spent more than my contract period, I didn’t want to stay. They got me a travel certificate. I came back after a month.”

Even those who went ‘regularly’ often found themselves in sticky situations. Charlotte was barely 18 when she was taken to Jordan in 2016, referred to the job by a friend who was already abroad. Soon after arriving in Jordan, she was taken by road to Saudi where she worked for close to 5 years until her return. “There were eight people in that house with this old lady. She was very bad, but the children were ok. The daughters used to tell me to eat when the old woman was not looking. I worked from 6 am to midnight, with no off day. And even the ones who were nice would keep asking me to manage, as there was no one else to work.”

For the period she was in Saudi, Charlotte had no iqama, only the documents for Jordan. “I said yes to going to Saudi, but I didn’t understand what it meant. They had all my documents. I got my passport only when I was returning, for which they had to bring me back to Jordan.”

Benoa’s connection man approached her in the church in 2016, when she was just 18. The same guy sent her first to Saudi and then to Oman. Though her story is not dissimilar to that of her colleagues in terms of long work hours and poor treatment, she managed to save enough to build a house for herself. “I never opened a bank account, just sent to my sister… but it was ok. Now I am learning tailoring.”

A low bar

Even when the women say they were treated well, the bar seems low. Rita was in Riyadh for five years. After two bad experiences, she says she found a household that treated her well – that is, she was paid every month (SAR900/ US$240) and was not physically or verbally abused. “It was a big house and there were 3 kids. They treated me well…” Probing a bit more on her work hours and off days, Rita says she worked 5 am to 12 noon and again from 3 pm to midnight. “No holiday and I had to buy my own toiletries and all.”

She, like most first-time migrants, left the country quietly, and without enough knowledge or preparation. “I didn’t have a bank account and sent money to my aunt, who spent most of it. I had only GH₵‎8000 left when I came back, and I used it to take some exams.” Ultimately she wants to study nursing, but to finance that she will have to go abroad again, she says. “When people ask me about going abroad, I tell them if you are humble they will treat you well. They feel black people are not good. They, the people there, think black people have bad ideas. I tell them to communicate about our life.”

That the women are migrating without knowledge of destination states or a plan on return means they are ill-prepared at every level. Most stark is the lack of financial awareness, particularly among first-time migrants.

“I did save money, but my family misused it. I don’t even know how much I was saving. I just kept sending money home. Only towards the end, when I knew I was coming, I got my last salary. When I came here, they said they had misused it,” says Charlotte.

“I sent money to my parents' name. I didn’t have a bank account. Next time I go will build a house, start a business… but I will open a bank account before I go,” says Mariamma.

As terrible as the experiences, there are few options available to them in Ghana, the women feel. So they all speak of a next time, a hope for a better experience next time around. The women say no one warned them before they left, even though they all had friends who were already working abroad who only said good things. Would they tell people not to go? They shake their head. “No one will believe us. They will think we are hiding our (good) fortune.”

There is an overall reluctance to share their stories or give advice to those who wish to travel. A few like Felicia (see sidebar) do so because they are looked up to as a success. With a little more urging, they put forwards some suggestions on how their lives could have been better.

“There should be set work hours,” says Conny. “We should not sleep where we work. There should be another house.”

“Salary is ok, but the work is too much. They should hire more people if there’s so much work,” says Erika.

“They took my phone (others nod), and we hardly had contact with our family members.

I felt so isolated. We should be allowed to speak to our family and friends,” says Mariamma.

The suggestions are commonsensical, practical, do-able, and yet are completely ignored in the drafting of laws and in the implementation mechanisms of the Gulf states.

The stories of homeless Africans in the UAE feed the narrative of irregular migration, placing the blame on origin countries [...] But little or no cognizance is taken of the ease with which thousands from impoverished countries can be brought into the state, with no accountability on the actors on the ground facilitating the process repeatedly, and verging on human trafficking.

The invisible men

While dozens of women, in groups and individually, speak of the reasons they migrate and why they’d do it again or not, the men who have been abroad or are planning to refuse to engage. The men don’t want to be seen as being a victim or having failed, says Felicia.

One young man, in his early 20s, hesitates before welcoming us into a dimly lit barber shop with Louis Vuitton wallpaper and unswept floor on a Sunday afternoon. He lounges on a sofa, speaking up only after the neighbours and other Ghanaians leave the shop. Francis, a herbalist, is taking care of his grandfather’s salon – one of several on that street. He went to Dubai in 2019 to work on a date farm. “It is Sheikha Fatima’s farm. The connection man sent me. I wanted to go to Mexico, but I first went to South Africa. They denied me. So he sent me to Dubai saying it's a good job but on a farm. I paid him GH₵‎8000… He said I was going to be a gardener. I ended up near Al Ain, in a palace there. There were 25 Ghanaians on the farm with him. We were given accommodation and AED1000, but no food.”

Some of the other Ghanaians on the farm have managed to get security jobs and some have left, he says. “The country is good. But we are just cheap labour. When we went there to work, money was not enough after all the expenses. The city is good, the infrastructure is good, but not how they treat us.” There’s dejection while speaking of staying back in Ghana. “People want to go. Everyone wants a break. I don’t dissuade them [when they ask him]. Individual experiences will be different. I want to go again too. But not to Asia.”

Abe, who worked for six years in the UAE as a painter and welder, and returned a few months ago and has invested in an okada (3-wheeler taxi). He is overall upbeat about what he managed to do working abroad, and matter-of-fact about the problems he faced. “I didn’t have enough education to get a good job here. Which is why I decided to go abroad. A friend from Ghana got me the job, and introduced me to the manager there. And he got me a visa and a free ticket.”

Abe says he didn’t pay a recruitment fee, just gave some money to his friend as thanks. “I was promised AED1500, but didn’t receive that amount until the third year of my contract.” The other Ghanaians in the Indian-run business in Dubai returned before him. He says he never tried changing jobs, because the employer held their passport.

“We know it is illegal to hold our passport, but at that time when you are working you don’t get time to even go out and look for a job. You are working all the time. We worked 8 hours and overtime… we did more than 2 hours but would only be paid for two.”

The only time Abe was tempted to file a complaint, it was too late to do so. “They dropped me at the airport with my ticket and passport and gave me an envelope with AED800… they did not give my end-of-service entitlements for the six years I worked, and said if I came back to work they would. I wanted to file a complaint, but I was already leaving.”

He did manage to save money and bought the okada and some land to build a home. “If I get a good job, I would want to go back. Even to the UAE, but only on a work visa. A lot of people have gone from here. Since I’ve come back in February (2022), I know at least three people who went, and they have all come back. They went on a tourist visa and didn’t get a job.”

The young men did speak to him before leaving. “I advised them against going on a visit visa. That this was the appropriate way to for a job. But they were desperate. And my own country people there were telling them we will get you a job when you come. I told them that that wasn’t the truth, and that it is not how it worked. They will take your money and you will come back in three months. “Each of them lost more than GH₵‎10000. Now they have come back and they are just roaming around.”

Abe doesn’t know who their ‘connection men’ were as none of them was willing to introduce him, but there are several around town says. “They [the connection men] are not speaking the truth to the people they are sending. Travelling is good, but you need to look for a job here before you leave. If someone is there and trying to convince you to go, I would not advise you unless you see the employment visa and contract. Otherwise, you waste time and money and come back empty-handed.”

He recounts the exchanges he had with several Africans over the years in the UAE, most of them women, who had been hoodwinked into migration. “So many people not employed, just roaming around. Some even try to beg you for money, and when you confront them they all have the same story of someone deceiving them, that they were promised a job. They were homeless and sleeping outside in Deira area and metro stations.”

The stories of homeless Africans in the UAE feed the narrative of irregular migration, placing the blame on origin countries and their agents, and justifying the mass deportations of migrant workers in the last several months. But little or no cognizance is taken of the ease with which thousands from impoverished countries can be brought into the state, with no accountability on the actors on the ground facilitating the process repeatedly, and verging on human trafficking. The lack of opportunities at origin is only one factor of many.

Richmond works as a cleaner in Qatar and paid about US$2000 to an agent to get the job. He spent close to a year paying off this debt. He says the home environment for youth can be challenging, with pressure from both parents to be financially independent. “In Ghana, I know after you complete high school, 65-70% of the parents will inform you they've done their part, the rest will leave everything on you. But how do you start?  There is unemployment and inadequate opportunities, so after secondary school what are we going to do if you don’t qualify for higher education? The education system doesn’t equip to meet the needs of the market. We need support to develop entrepreneurial skills.”

“The informal sector – petty trading and agriculture – is the largest employer in Ghana. The formal sector is marginal. You will notice that the background of migrants, particularly to the Gulf states, their level of education is not high. Either illiterate or only up to junior high school. The Gulf’s demand is for domestic work or artisans. The ones who can’t pursue education learn a trade, but they don’t have the capital to set up their business. So they go abroad to earn that because jobs are plenty. Plus, there is a market established by agents, and social media paints a picture that lures them,” according to Joha Braimah, a migration and anti-human trafficking expert. “Furthermore, in Ghana, it is critical to have your own home, however small or basic. It’s a big humiliation not to, but there are limited opportunities to earn the money.”

In November 2022, Ghana announced a freeze on recruitment to the public sector, making economic opportunities scarcer.

Given these circumstances, there is little that can stop one from taking a gamble and making a risky journey in the hope of better opportunities. GCC states have little incentive then to change the laws and regulations that lead to labour exploitation. There are always newer and ever more desperate source markets to sign agreements with, without having to make significant and meaningful changes at destination.


Part I: In Ghana, the ban that isn’t feeds corruption and desperation

Part II: Everyone is involved but no one is responsible