Born in a poor family in Ethiopia, Makiya says she is happy to finally follow in her friends’ footsteps. Those steps have taken them far – to the Middle East – but, once abroad, what chances do they really have to get ahead? Many young Ethiopian women are choosing to work as maids in the Arab world. This occupation seems to promise a way out of poverty. But one must ask, ironically, at what price?
“In one month time, Insha’Allah, I will be in Saudi Arabia,” says Makiya, her eyes full of hope. “Many of my friends have managed to turn around their family’s fortune by working there.” Apart from coping with their various expenses, Makiya wants to give her family something lasting. “I want to build them a house. I want to make them proud of me.”
The ‘2012 Trafficking in Persons Report’ on Ethiopia published in June by the US Department of State states: “Many Ethiopian women working in domestic service in the Middle East face severe abuses.” The report cites a litany of violations, “including physical and sexual assault, denial of salary, sleep deprivation, withholding of passports, confinement, and murder”.
Despite the appalling experiences she hears many women face in the Arab world, Makiya says she would rather “take my chances than sit here”. The “here” she refers to is Ethiopia’s Amhara region, where recent censuses report that at least 80% of the local population are Orthodox Christian.
Still, Makiya is hardly blind to the high chance that things could also go horribly wrong, especially if her migration is not always done in a legal way.
A family affair
A year has passed since Makiya’s only sister went missing. She was working for a Saudi Arabian household, but then got fired for reasons still unknown to her family. They never heard from her again.
Meanwhile, Makiya’s two brothers have yet to realize their dreams of reaching Saudi Arabia. Having taken an illegal route, they have been trapped in Djibouti and Yemen for many years now. “All of them had the same dream of kicking poverty out of their family, after losing hope farming in a small plot that we have,” Makiya says.
“Despite the uncertainty over my sister’s and brothers’ situation, I could not be in school and wait for miracles to happen for my poor family – with the cost of everything rising up every day – and test my family’s existence,” explains the young woman.
To increase her chances at legal migration, she had to drop out of grade eight and “age” herself from 16 to 23. “It does not mean that much when you consider…[how] some of my neighbours have gone there, abandoning their marriages and children,” she adds.
Labour migration on the rise
According to the US Department of State’s findings, Ethiopia’s ministry of labour and social affairs reported “a fourfold increase – from 20,000 to 80,000 – in applications to work overseas in 2011”. This statistic, however, is considered to represent only “some 30 to 40 percent of Ethiopians migrating to the Middle East” because “60 to 70 percent of labor migration is facilitated by illegal brokers, increasing migrants’ vulnerability to forced labor”.
A 2011 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN agency that promotes globally recognized workers’ rights, also described “ample evidence that trafficking of Ethiopians as domestic workers for labour exploitation is highly prevalent in Ethiopia”. The report added that “the practice has increased recently and the youth are deceived and sometimes coerced into migrating to the Middle East countries”.
Some Ethiopian women who have repatriated from the Arab world urge people, like Makiya, to better prepare for what they will encounter abroad.
“There is a big gap in lifestyle in Ethiopia and the Arab world. Many employers do not want to put up with this kind of situation and start to harass us, instead,” says Rosa Tamene, who returned to Ethiopia after a five-year stay in Lebanon and Kuwait, where she worked as a maid.
A concrete suggestion she makes is for women, particularly those from rural areas, to become better acquainted with home appliances, so they are less likely to stumble when dealing with demanding employers.
Tamene also cautions would-be migrant workers against officials who present themselves as helpful. “Agents, legal or illegal, who have [made promises] at recruitment stage are not only very poor at protecting migrant domestic workers safety, but may also inflict abuse on workers at times,” she says. “When in need, our embassies and officials working there are not exercising their responsibility of helping us protecting our safety either. That needs to change a lot.”