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PAID TO BE A SLAVE (PART ONE)

General News

What pushes people to seek greener pastures in the Middle East despite the dangers they may face?

What pushes people to seek greener pastures in the Middle East despite the dangers they may face?

All I needed was a passport and GHC315 for a medical check-up . . .

“Years ago, I tried to go Lebanon in search of a better life and job to take care of my children. For some reason it failed. Many months passed while I struggled to secure a job with steady pay.

“A son introduced me to a recruitment agent who was willing to help. I got my passport done and in no time, with the help of the agent and my sponsor in the country, I was going to work in Kuwait as a domestic servant.

“All my necessities were paid for and I was ready to leave Ghana. But there is nothing I regret more doing till this very day than leaving my family behind to travel to Kuwait.”

Nearly three million women immigrants work as maids in the Middle East. Maid in Hell, a documentary by the BBC recently widely publicised on social media, follows the experiences of women who travel to work in such countries and the maids who struggle to find a way home after harrowing, sometimes deadly, encounters.

It is that clip which prompted this article. Many of the victims are Ghanaians. Large numbers of the foreign domestic workers are African and the most popular among the African recruits are Ghanaians and Kenyans: the recruitment agents find them more docile and say they work harder.

Stories of domestic workers employed and severely maltreated by rich families from the Middle East are rife. In one notorious case in 2010, a junior member of the Saudi royal family beat and battered his male servant to death at the Landmark Hotel while on holiday in London.

Yet many people from African countries travel or want to travel to take up domestic jobs in Middle Eastern countries, regardless of these places’ brutal disregard for human rights.

Work and abuse

The ill-treatment, abuse and slavery of African workers in Arab countries have a long history. Few instances involve men. Most of the recruits are girls and they often find themselves stuck in these countries. Many are begging to be rescued and pressuring their political leaders to bring them home.

There is some fault on the girls’ part in the first place, for falling into hopeless schemes to make a fortune working in a distant country, paying agents money that could have been used to start a business at home. But the current distribution of wealth in Ghana does not encourage some to stay here in the hope that things will get better.

Though there are instances of physical and psychological abuse, most of the cases are to do with overwork. When I spoke to the Kuwait lady who wanted her story to be heard and shared to deter others from going, she said she’d never had a day of rest.

“I worked every day for three years. Even when they gave me a break, where was I going to stay? So, for every day in three years and four months, even when I was sick, I would work tirelessly ‒ scrub their bathrooms, do their laundry, cook for them, take care of their children, and the list goes on.”

Some workers are not allowed to speak to anyone in the outside world. On arriving, some have their passport and phone taken away. The lucky ones are given phones to use when need be, or so that they can contact their family once in a while.

Some are given substandard food, or kept in poorly ventilated rooms under shoddy conditions.

There are extreme cases of rape and torture. But the issues of overworking, of receiving a lower salary than agreed, and generally poor conditions of service have the greatest impact on the lives of these women.

In recent years, the print and electronic media have publicised ordeals of Ghanaian girls who have travelled willingly and in some cases who have been trafficked to the Gulf countries to work as maids. Every story we have come across speaks of some kind of abuse or injury; occasionally there are deaths.

Radio and TV stations have shown some of these women recounting their stories directly, mainly in countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The lure factor

Why are people still paying agencies and looking for a “better life” in other countries?

The Gulf states are rich, very rich. Per-capita income is higher in that region than in most parts of the world. Yet all of these countries, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, have more foreigners as workers and residents than citizens.

In Qatar, for instance, about 88 per cent of all residents are foreigners. The United Arab Emirates, which many refer to as “Dubai”, has about 80 per cent foreigners. Their wealth, coupled with their relatively low population, gives the citizens of these countries a high per-capita income and extremely high standards of living. As such, domestic work and jobs considered as low-class or low-paying will not be done by local people, as they can employ others to do them.

They then recruit housemaids and other domestic staff from abroad, mainly from poor countries in Africa, the Asian subcontinent and the Far East. Payments made to such workers in the UAE are meagre or nothing compared to the labour they offer. But the same amount paid to a housemaid in Ghana would seem huge, even to the average Ghanaian in a white-collar job.

Another reason for the increased demand for housemaids from Ghana is the ban placed by many countries on their citizens working in the Gulf and other parts of the Middle East. Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Uganda and countless other countries have placed a total ban on their citizens working in all or most of the Gulf countries because of maltreatment and abuses over the past five years. This has resulted in a huge shortage of maids, mainly in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where most of the abuses are reported.

Recruitment agencies in these countries have fallen on Ghanaians and offer mouth-watering deals to recruiters, who in turn offer irresistible offers to the public. Posing as a young girl who wanted to travel outside for a job, I spoke to a recruitment agent whose advertisement I found online. All I needed was a passport and GHC315 for a medical check-up. In return, the agent promised free transportation, free accommodation and an opportunity to earn between GHC1,600 and GHC4,000 each month in Dubai. Even as someone with a well-paid job, I found the offer tempting.

“I still have receipts for sending money home to my account, family and children,” the Ghanaian woman who travelled to Kuwait said. “I made money. But as we are speaking, there is no money left from what I made.

“All my work was in vain, as I still have to work as a house help in Ghana. It is not worth it.”

* Look out for part two in the Daily Statesman in the coming week: the story of the Ghanaian woman in Kuwait.