There is a ban on migration, we are told. Only, it isn’t. By all accounts, it’s an urban legend perpetuated by media misreporting, which is now the truth without basis in law or regulation. Long before the Ghanaian government woke up to both the potential and challenges of labour migration to the Gulf states, a handful of private recruitment agents – mainly situated in the capital city of Accra and the second-largest city of Kumasi – had already started raking it in. They had intimate knowledge of the labour market needs of the GCC states, the unemployment and economic crisis of their own country, and a rather free hand in bridging the needs of the two markets as the governments were still grappling with how best to manage the situation.
But sometime around 2015 and 2016, the number of complaints received from Ghanaian women deployed as domestic workers — both by registered and illegal agents – was on the rise. Media reporting and word-of-mouth stories painted the most gruesome of pictures that could not be denied – sexual and physical abuse, debilitating injuries, deaths, wage theft, and dehumanising living conditions.
These reports set in motion a series of events. The idea for a ban on domestic worker deployment directly to households was originally put forward by registered recruitment agents but backfired drastically.
“I won’t send any worker employed by a family directly, because we cannot control the behaviour of each family. If we send 10,000 workers to 10,000 homes, we cannot control the behaviour of 10,000 people,” Kwaku Addai Tardieh, a Kumasi-based agent says, explaining the genesis of the ban. He is still vehement about not sending domestic workers to the Gulf, preferring business-to-business deployment. Kwabu now runs a bakery out of a medium-sized villa, providing bread and pastries to the shops and restaurants in the city. Over an hour, sitting in the dusty portico, he analyses all that ails Ghanaian migration, ruthlessly critical of his own government, but shying away a tad from holding Gulf governments accountable.
Tardieh doesn’t see an end to outward migration and warns that the ban will continue to have a devastating impact. “I’ve been in this work for nearly two decades. There’s so much unemployment in Ghana and yet we don’t know how to manage this. The previous government and current government are handling things so despicably. It defies common sense that we cannot focus on monitoring and sanitising this industry.”
His colleagues echo his concerns. In a crowded market area of Accra, up a steep flight of stairs, down a grimy hallway, are a row of rooms. They are mostly empty, but multiple mobile phones ring constantly. The last room overlooks the busy street below on two sides, and the third wall has a window looking into a room with several chairs, what may have once been a bustling waiting area. Abubakr Dan Liman, who runs First Class Recruitment Services, juggles his mobile handsets. “A few years ago you’d never be able to catch me on a weekday like this. If you look at my office, I have 20 chairs. In 2016, you come here, these chairs and corridors will be full. I won’t have time to talk to you. I had about 18 workers at that time. I only have 1 now. Laid them all off.”
“I won’t send any worker employed by a family directly, because we cannot control the behaviour of each family. If we send 10,000 workers to 10,000 homes, we cannot control the behaviour of 10,000 people...”
The conversations with Liman, Tardieh, and their colleagues are in stark contrast to the many held with Ghanaian officials in various government departments. The agents reel off figures and data and are disdainful of what they see as a “clueless” government.
“Before 2015 we operated as private individuals though we had a licence to export labour. There were 15 of us then [including Tardieh], and we were invited by the government to discuss the export of labour. The parliamentary select committee for labour asked us to form an association and that they would communicate with us and help us. So we set up GHAPEA (Ghanaian Association of Private Employment Agents). The main reason for this engagement was because of complaints coming from the Gulf from domestic workers, especially ladies. We have men working in the domestic work industry as drivers and gardeners, but complaints were from women. We had regular interaction with the labour minister.”
Liman says 90% of workers, cases were from those deployed by unlicensed agents. The cost of registering a recruitment agent was a steep US$5000 then. The demand was at its peak. “In 2015/2016, about 160 visas were being processed daily at the Saudi Arabian embassy alone. We were submitting 190-200 visa requests daily.”
The official procedure was straightforward, he explains. There were two contracts. One between the Ghanaian agent and the company recruiting the worker. The other was between the company in the Gulf and the worker. As part of the pre-departure process, the agent had to submit these contracts to the labour department who then spoke to the candidate and gave them information on where they were going.
“Gradually it was getting better,” he claims, but when the new government came to power in 2016, they said they didn’t want complaints from the Gulf.
“Many of the women who return are clearly mentally unwell, and many also speak of undergoing unexplained surgeries that may be for organ harvesting."
Birth of the ban, the rise of the connection man
“We had a stakeholders meeting, and we invited the minister of labour. We suggested that we want him to ban direct-to-home supply of domestic workers. It was our suggestion. And he said that on the podium. ‘With immediate effect, there should be no supply of domestic workers direct to home.’ We want to send domestic workers, but we want it to be from office to office. But in Saudi, at that time, if you were a Saudi citizen you could just make a visa for a Ghanaian citizen and recruit directly.”
The minister followed the script and made the announcement.
“But the media misquoted him, and the following day reported that all recruitment of workers to the Gulf is banned. Because the minister received kudos for this, he didn’t want to correct the misconception. He kept quiet. Everybody was congratulating him. So there’s no written policy. Just a verbal announcement. No document from the government that there is a ban. He did not even say ban, he said temporary suspension.”
Five years later, and with tens of thousands of Ghanaians travelling to the Gulf states in the interim, the ban is anything but that – it remains a joke, a means of intimidation by officials, a fountainhead of corruption, and a loss of government revenue to the tune of millions. [see sidebar: The World Cup goldmine, and Ghana’s loss]
It also gave momentum to the activities of the ‘connection men’ – a John or a Mary, unregistered, and working underground – who now run the routes for domestic workers. The demand for domestic workers in the Gulf and the demand for jobs in Ghana have both only been increasing, and the connection men have a fertile ground to carry out their activities without accountability. The ban and its nitty-gritty don’t mean much to them.
“Our (GHAPEA) 15 offices collapsed. And then the corona pandemic hit us. Now what is happening, we are coming back to job demands gradually but not in a straightforward manner (illegally). The government is still taking money from us to renew our licence. As it’s for recruitment to international and local. The profit is to be made mainly with international,” Liman says.
Governments of GCC states, unmindful of the ban and that recruitment at origin had shifted to illegal agents, continued processing domestic work visas for Ghanaian women. Even if this meant that the worker was travelling without the requisite knowledge and in great precarity. Origin countries imposing bans on the pretext of protecting their citizens at destination often has the opposite impact.
Several officials Migrant-Rights.Org spoke to all accepted that there was no clarity on the ban and maintained that the government did not want to put out a statement without introducing proper regulations.
"...the immigration officers at the airport are taking bribes [...] they know for the exit permit you have to pay GH₵300 as capitation fees to the government, so you give us 500 they say. They connive with the agent to commit illegal acts.”
A director at the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations explains that the ban was indeed targeted at direct-to-home recruitment of domestic workers. “It’s a policy decision since it is very unsafe to go to the Gulf. We are exploring safe pathways to migrate, that are not direct to home.” She says they are not in a hurry to clarify details of the ban (or the lack thereof) and will continue to work on putting in place better processes.
“Every piece of evidence was largely anecdotal. If there is a company going through safe pathways, companies that provide live-in work, it would make more sense. Communication around this became problematic. They (public and media) thought it was a total ban.”
[In November 2022 a statement by Ghana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried clarifying details on the ban, with regards to the repatriation of its citizens from the UAE. See sidebar: Mass deportations from the UAE.]
In 2022, bilateral labour agreements (BLA) were entered into with a couple of GCC countries, and there are three others in the draft stage, but the joint committees to execute these agreements have still not been activated. As per the International Labour Organisation, “An integral part of any agreement is the establishment of a joint committee (JC) to monitor and implement the agreement. The most common practice in this regard is to establish a committee with a combination of officials of the two signatory parties under labels such as “Joint Commission”, “Joint Committee”, “Joint Working Group”, “Joint Technical Committee and, “Bilateral Working Group”, among others. The committees consist of senior officials from both parties, and the agreements mention the functions of the committees and frequency of meetings in general.”
“Every effort is from our side. We don’t have labour attaches. We wanted to have either labour attaches or train foreign service staff. There are constraints and budget limits. We as a labour ministry are not able to. Also, the fluid nature of foreign services does not allow us to prioritise this.”
A diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs echoes the same reluctance to issue clarifications on the ban.
“It (trafficking) is a global trend. We need to look at regulatory space. We have taken note of abuses taking place in the GCC. Looking at the evidence, some have impunity. It’s always in the news. How people are treated. It is up to the state agencies to keep addressing this as to what we can do. We are looking at agreements. It’s not a unilateral agreement. We need Gulf countries to cooperate; it is in their interest to cooperate with us on these agreements.”
He concedes the ‘ban’ is ineffective.
“There is a West African protocol of free movement, so you can go from one to another port. Go to Togo and move from there. Very difficult to block.”
Governments of GCC states, unmindful of the ban and that recruitment at origin had shifted to illegal agents, continued processing domestic work visas for Ghanaian women.
The officials deflect and do not address directly the accusations of widespread corruption at immigration.
However, Deena*, an immigration officer who is often assigned to Kotoka International Airport arrivals, expresses concern about the number of cases of abused women who return to the country daily. “How are they going if there is a ban?” the officer prods, indicating the nexus between agents and officers. “Many of the women who return are clearly mentally unwell, and many also speak of undergoing unexplained surgeries that may be for organ harvesting. I speak to them when they are coming back. But nothing happens to stop this. All of them are going illegally,” the officer says.
Liman maintains that it is illegal only because they are not going through the process that was set in place. “However, the immigration officers at the airport are taking bribes. You go to the airport, and they tell you they can’t allow your candidates to fly because there’s no exit permit, which you can’t get because of the ‘ban’, and they know for the exit permit you have to pay GH₵300 as capitation fees to the government, so you give us 500 they say. Sometimes you bargain and pay 300. They connive with the agent to commit illegal acts.”
According to him, since the ban, a minimum of 500 women travel every month to the Gulf, and that’s a conservative figure. “Only yesterday [first week of December 2022] I received information that two companies have received 600 and 500 visas for domestic workers in Saudi. The two are registered, but they will send them without completing the process. In the next 2–3 weeks all of them would have gone, paying immigration officers 300-500 per candidate. They are all going to an agency in Saudi.”
“The government doesn’t even know how many people leave Ghana a day,” Tadier adds. But the agents have been on top of the data, recording and compiling amongst themselves. “I have paid so much money to get my licence, renewal fees… but the illegal agent is getting away with sending workers. Decisions on migration, employment, and recruitment are made by people who don’t know the issue well.
“When you sit down to speak to those who are making policies, they don’t even know what they are talking about. I asked them how many of them have travelled to visit Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha… to visit one single accommodation? No one had. And they are making decisions. Me, a private person, took a flight and visited Dubai to check the company I was recruiting for. In 2007, I went to Sonapur (a location in Dubai housing sprawling and decrepit labour camps) to check the situation, and the government didn’t even believe us and dismissed [reports of] maltreatment of workers as nonsense.”
Tadier recalls seeing Africans, mainly from Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria sleeping in the Union metro station. “There were people begging me for a bus ticket. I met a Sierra Leonean there who said she has been there for 1.5 years and had no money. Ghanaians going to the UAE on visit visas are all cramped in a room by their illegal agents. There is a house called Ghanaian house, these people are making a business renting rooms. They think agents are riffraff, but we do our research. I predicted that if they don’t encourage legal channels, then they will be spending money bringing Ghanaians back spending government money because they went illegally. That prediction is now coming true.”
There is a particular problem with the UAE, he elaborates. “Many years ago, there was no visit visa route, but now there is an influx [into the UAE] and many illegal routes. Companies were also taking advantage of the confusion over the ban. Not just from Ghana, but even from Nigeria and Sierra Leone people are tricked into paying money to go to the UAE without a proper job. Last year, on average workers had to pay US$1500 for a job, and they were going irregularly.”
"I am not an NGO, I need to make money. If you give me a commission as a company, I won’t take it from the worker. But how can I do this for free otherwise.”
GCC HR consultants rule the roost
Those who go through regular channels also pay some fees. “What we charge depends on the company. We recruited workers for an arms factory in the UAE, and workers didn’t have to pay anything. For the security sector, we charge US$1700-1800 because companies don’t pay for anything. Companies are not paying for tickets, they are not paying for the security guard training at SIRA (Security Industry Regulatory Authority), which issues certification for those working in the security sector in Dubai. We get contracts through their HR consultants there, and on paper, it says the company has paid. But the consultant tells us a different thing.”
There is no one standard recruitment practice. “In Qatar, Teyseer Sodexo workers don’t pay anything. Workers are supposed to cover the fees for their covid test, government concession fees and medical, but I can’t charge them anything. The candidate pays only GH₵1300-1500 (US$110-130). Sodexo will pay me one month after the candidate starts work. The same type of company, same job and salary, if I go through an HR consultant in Qatar, they will charge me around US$600 per person. These consultants go to the company HR – it’s a business and understanding between them. The company HR also knows. Security companies all go through HR consultants. When there’s a problem those companies prefer a local agent.”
“Regency [in Qatar] if you have direct contact with them, they pay us a commission. But the HR people will push these agents or consultants and refuse to work directly. They arrange this so they can get kickbacks. Some of the clients tell you when there are problems, we prefer having a company licensed locally we can deal with, not in Ghana or whichever origin country.”
Tadier recalls a recent recruitment campaign. “A lady from an international fast-food chain came from the UAE for recruitment, and she gave us a presentation. Told workers no recruitment charges, and they are not supposed to pay. The local agent, my friend, stood up and told her that this consultant you have brought with you is charging us US$200 per person, how can you tell the workers they don’t pay? How will I make money? So I charge them US$400, give the consultant 200 and make 200. So the lady told him the company gives the agent/consult US$550 per person. With the agreement, they give the Ghanaian agent 250, and he takes 300. But this guy was double-dipping, charging both sides and pocketing US$750. I am not an NGO, I need to make money. If you give me a commission as a company, I won’t take it from the worker. But how can I do this for free otherwise.”
The accusations against GCC-based HR consultants echo the claims of agents in Kenya as well.
Many of the HR consultants make sure to not leave a paper trail. “I carry cash to Dubai and Doha because they don’t want me to make a bank transfer.”
Abubakr, another senior member of GHAPEA, reiterates the concern that HR consultants take bribes and remove any scope for transparent recruitment. “Normally we speak directly to the companies based on the commission they’d pay us. Now it’s all through these consultants based in the Gulf. They make you pay under the table. Dubai we pay GH₵3000 per job. Qatar we pay about GH₵5000.”
His is one of the few agencies that admit it still sends domestic workers to Saudi. “We send about 300 every month. The workers don’t have to pay anything. But we pay immigration GH₵500 per worker. There are these connection men, mainly Sudanese, who come from Saudi and arrange these contracts. The Musaned system doesn’t work for us because of the ban.”
While tough on the Ghanaian government’s lack of preparedness, the agents skirt around problems at the destination.
“There are some good companies. Salaries will be delayed but never not paid. I tell the workers don’t send all the money home. Keep some for when there are delays… I am being honest, if you don’t like that, don’t go to the Gulf. There will be salary delays even with big companies, because of different reasons I can’t get into. But some will always pay, and treat workers well. Also, workers don’t want to go and work for 8 hours. They would rather work long hours and make money. They complain that they don’t want to be sitting and watching TV instead of overtime. Media reports say they are being overworked. But they want it. And they want to be paid for it.”
*Some names have been changed, shortened or withheld on request
Illustration credit: Asma Kalush
Part II, forthcoming: Everyone is involved but no one is responsible