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Ethiopia: Middle Passage to the Middle East

Alemayehu G Mariam

From the International Slave Trade to the International Maid Trade

In the days of the Atlantic slave trade, the Middle Passage was the journey of slave trading ships from the west coast of Africa to the New World. Portuguese, British, French, Spanish, Dutch and other slave traders maintained outposts along the African coast to transact their business with their local slave raiding partners. Millions of African slaves were sold or traded for manufactured goods or raw materials. In the grueling journey, the slaves were often shackled and chained to the floor to gain maximum cargo capacity. Many died from disease, starvation, dehydration and suffocation. Many also committed suicide by jumping overboard. Those who resisted their masters were beaten and even killed. Plantation owners treated the slaves like cattle; and those working in the fields were often flogged and beaten. Female slaves were the objects of sexual desire and abuse by their masters.  The law required runaway slaves (“fugitive slaves”) who escaped their bondage to be returned to their masters who punished them severely.

MWThere is a Middle Passage of sorts taking place today from Ethiopia to the Middle East. It is what lawyer Khaled Ali Beydoun and others have described as the Ethiopian “Maid Trade”.  Today a network of unscrupulous modern-day slave-traffickers (“human traffickers”) and “private labor employment agencies” operating under license by the ruling regime in Ethiopia transship thousands of young Ethiopian women to various parts of the Middle East to work as domestic servants in what amounts to “contract slavery” with little follow up and monitoring to ensure their well-being and welfare in their host countries.

The plight of Ethiopian women domestic workers in the Middle East has been documented in Bina Fernandez’s survey research (Ch. 7).  In 2009, “over 74,000 people risked their lives to enter Yemen en route to Saudi Arabia, of which 42,000 were Ethiopians.”  According to official data, 91% of the Ethiopian domestic workers in the Middle East were single women, 83% between the age of 20–30 age group, 63% had some secondary education, 26% were illiterate and 71% Muslim and 93% earned US$100–150 per month. Some of these women “officially registered with the government as a migrant worker”.  Others “worked through illegal brokers who are viciously exploitative [and] often take the women’s money and sometimes abandon them in the desert before they even reach Somalia.”

The “Middle Passage” of Middle East “contract slavery” for the young Ethiopian women is unspeakably harrowing.  Their working conditions are described as slave-like, except, as Beydoun argues, “Shackles and whips have been replaced by more inventive designs to dehumanize, suppress, and subsequently enslave persons for economic or sexual purposes.”  Fernandez reported that the women live-in domestic workers she interviewed were “on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and working between 10 and 20 hours daily.” Some of the women pulled “double duty– that is, cleaning or doing laundry for a second household, usually a relative of their employer.” Most of these women got “only one day off a month, or no break at all.” Many of these women experienced “complete physical exhaustion” and often suffered “mental breakdown” unable to “tell what day of the week it was, or what time it was.” They faced extreme physical, mental and sexual abuse. In August 2011, the world witnessed the shocking video of Shweyga Mullah, a young Ethiopian woman who cared for two of Moammar Gadhafi’s grandchildren in Libya. Because Shweyga refused to beat one of the grandchildren, Gadhaffi’s daughter-in-law “tied her hand behind her back, taped her mouth and poured boiling water on her scalding her entire body.” She suffered first degree burns over her entire body. Extreme physical and sexual abuse of Ethiopian domestic workers is not uncommon elsewhere in the Middle East as documented by Al Jazeera in 2009 in the United Arab Emirates.

Fernadez further found that that “verbal abuse by employers is commonplace” including “racial insults and discriminatory behaviour (such as separate food and dishes for them) as is non-payment or underpayment of wages. To escape their conditions, some are forced to become “runaways”. They end up doing “live-out domestic workers, brewing and selling illicit liquor, or engaging in sex work.” But they are trapped. Fernandez explains, “Their lack of legal status makes them vulnerable to greater exploitation if they are detected, as they risk blackmail, imprisonment, and/or deportation. If they wish to leave voluntarily, they often have to pay highfines for exit visas.”

On the other hand, Beydoun argues that the young Ethiopian women trafficked in the “maid trade” in Lebanon are often clueless about “what their commitment entails, and the imminent risks and hazards they will likely endure during migration and employment.” They face enormous dangers including  “overcharging of fees; debt bondage; falsification of documents; deception with regard to the nature and conditions of employment, contract substitution, exploitation and abuse, lack of preparation for employment abroad, including lack of predeparture training; forced/coerced recruitment, including being kidnapped or sold to illegal recruiters or traffickers; hazardous journey to the country of destination.”

Tears of the Ethiopian Maids

In a recent Youtube video, an unnamed young Ethiopian woman confronts a representative of the regime of Meles Zenawi in a meeting hall in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The words of this young woman in the 2 minute video are so powerful, so overwhelming and so penetrating that the listener is brought to convulsive tears. She complains about the mistreatment and dehumanization she and other maids continue to face in life and in death in the UAE, and laments the depraved indifference of her “government” to speak up, defend and protect them from gross abuses of human rights.

…. If we run away from [our abusive employers], there is a chance we can die. There is a woman who tells us to run away. But they don’t help us. If [we] run away, we need money to pay for rent and food. [We] don’t have to run away. As much as possible, it is better to help [us]. When we live in this country [UAE], sometimes we die. Many of us are buried here. Why must an Ethiopian be buried in the Emirates? Why is that our government does not check on us, follow up on our conditions, ask about us? Why should I be buried in a foreign country? It does not matter if we are Christian or Muslim. This question has deprived me sleep. When I bow to pray, I have not been able to do so properly. Only God knows. All I do is cry. Even our dead bodies must not be buried in this country. [There was a domestic worker accused of killing her employer.] It is possible she may have done something wrong. Her government should stand and defend her and advocate for her. She should be punished as appropriate [if she is guilty] by her family or the law… We learned [within a few days of her arrest] that she was killed by the authorities [in the Emirates].

As she concluded her statement, this young woman cries out in pain, her voice quivering, tears in her eyes and pleading for an answer from someone, anyone:

Where is Ethiopia’s flag? I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take it anymore…!!!!

It was enough to make a grown man cry. It would be impossible to find a more patriotic, resolute, unwavering, steadfast and true-to-the-core Ethiopian than this young woman!! When those who have a chokehold on power declare with depraved indifference that “Ethiopia’s flag is a piece of rag”, this unnamed young Ethiopian woman cries her heart out looking of her lost Ethiopian flag. Bless her heart!

The Response of Zenawi’s Regime – Blame the Maids!

The response of Meles Zenawi’s regime to the plight of these women is morally calloused and depraved. Fernandez reported: “The term ‘runaway’ was used in a pejorative sense by one Ethiopian government official and several of the PEA [private employment agency] representatives during interviews, to describe these women as delinquents who abandon their contractual responsibilities because they do not want to work hard, and want an easy life.” Beydoun argues that the ruling regime’s efforts to combat trafficking in Lebanon were symbolic and ineffective despite the fact that an inter-agency anti-trafficking task force had been established to deal with the problem. He concluded, “Trafficked women are particularly vulnerable where their own governments fail to adequately protect them.”

Since 1998, Zenawi’s regime has put in place a “Private Employment Agency Proclamation No. 104/1998”, which provided for licensing of private employment agencies and the prosecution of illegal brokers. In 2009, this Proclamation was repealed and updated by the “Employment Exchange Services Proclamation No. 632/2009”, which required private employment agencies, among other things, “not to recruit a job seeker below the age of 18 years; not to terminate the contract of employment before acquiring the consent of the worker in writing, get approval from the Ethiopian embassy or consular office to form a new contract or to modify the existing one, register a worker sent abroad, within fifteen days, with the nearest Ethiopian embassy or consular office.”  The “private employment agency which sends workers abroad” is mandated to ensure that the working conditions in the host country not “be less favorable to an Ethiopian than the rights and benefits of those who work in a similar type and level of work in the country of employment.” The foreign employer is required to pay the “visa fee of the country of destination, round trip ticket, residence and work permit fees and insurance coverage” for the worker. Moreover, “any private employment agency which sends a worker abroad for work” must deposit cash or post bond in the minimum amount of  USD$30,000 for up to 500 workers “for the protection and enforcement of the rights of the worker.”

The real penalty for violation of the Proclamation No. 632 is suspension, revocation or cancellation of license of the employment agency. Though various stiff criminal penalties are provided in Article 40, there is little evidence of serious prosecution of human traffickers. According to a 2010 State Department report, “Between March and October 2009, the [Federal High Court’s 11th Criminal] bench heard 15 cases related to transnational labor trafficking, resulting in five convictions, nine acquittals, and one withdrawal due to missing witnesses. Of the five convictions, three offenders received suspended sentences of five years’ imprisonment, two co-defendants were fined, and one offender is serving a sentence of five years’ imprisonment.”

Similarly, according to a 2011 UNHCR report, “The [Ethiopian] government showed only nascent signs of engaging destination country governments in an effort to improve protections for Ethiopian workers and obtain protective services for victims.” Moreover, “although licensed employment agencies must place funds in escrow in the event a worker’s contract is broken, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has never used these deposits to pay for victims’ transportation back to Ethiopia.” But the regime has readily come to the rescue of other victims of human traffickers according to the same UNHCR report: “In 2010, Ethiopia granted asylum to 1,383 Eritrean refugees deported from Egypt, many of whom claim to have been brutalized by Rashaida smugglers operating in the Sinai – including conditions of forced construction labor – or have fled Eritrea to escape situations of forced labor associated with the implementation of the country’s national service program.” While it is noble and morally commendable to assist any victim of human trafficking and human rights abuse, it is also true that charity begins at home.

What Can Be Done to Help Ethiopian Women Caught Up in the “Maid Trade”?

The international movement of labor is a fact of international life. For a poor country such as Ethiopia where unemployment is high, workers who migrate abroad are a source of much needed financial support for their families, and a source of remittances for the country in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. But slavery, by any other name including contract slavery”, is still slavery. It is just as cruel, oppressive, exploitive, dehumanizing and degrading. These women are extremely vulnerable and have no rights and no means of support to vindicate their rights. Various commentators have argued that the demand for Ethiopian domestic workers will continue long-term as they are considered cheaper and more obedient. In other words, they are considered “model maids” who put up with a lot of abuse in quiet desperation.

One can point to international legal and moral obligations to help out these women and effectively combat human trafficking camouflaged as migrant labor. Among the relevant Conventions and protocols include: the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, the United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air, the  Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its two related protocols. Discussion of legal and moral state obligations under these Conventions would be an exercise in futility. Talking law to those who sneer and thumb their noses at the rule of law is a waste of time. So is making a moral plea or appealing to conscience as both presuppose the existence of a moral plane of discussion. All that can be done is explain what can be done!

If the problem of “contract slavery” in the Ethiopian “maid trade” is going to be addressed effectively, serious criminal investigations and prosecutions must be pursued against violators.  The aggressive crackdown that has long been directed at the independent press in Ethiopia should be re-directed to the gangs of criminal human traffickers. Various scholars and researchers have offered effective recommendations to deal with the problem including the provision of domestic skills training in a Middle Eastern context to Ethiopian women in attempt to lessen their vulnerability, working with NGOs as partner organizations to monitor their working conditions and  working with host countries  to make it easy for these workers to use the banking institutions. Some have suggested ways of improving access to the criminal justice system of the host country by providing a confidential complaint reporting process for abuse and wage payment related issues and legal assistance, expanding victim services such as shelters and hotlines engaging civil society and faith-based groups to offer assistance. There are lessons to be learned from the experiences of other countries such as the Philippines which  maintains an Overseas Employment Administration Agency to secure the interests of Filipino workers throughout the world.

Slavery By Any Other Name

Slavery was not abolished in Saudi Arabia and Yemen until 1962. A year later it was abolished in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the 1950s, Saudi Arabia had an estimated 450,000 slaves, nearly 20 percent of the population. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that “contract slavery” of domestic servants continues in these countries. The deep tracks of slavery do not vanish easily in the desert sand in a mere 50 years. The vast majority of the Ethiopian domestic workers end up in these three countries. In 2009, “over 74,000 people risked their lives to enter Yemen en route to Saudi Arabia, of which 42,000 were Ethiopians.” The “kafala” or sponsorship system in the Gulf States gives disproportionate power to the sponsor (employer) in the “contract” relationship. If the worker breaks her contract, she bears the cost of her return ticket and will likely pay fines and pay debts to the employment agency that arranged the sponsorship. There is no running away from “contract slavery” particularly since the migrant worker is required to surrender her passport (if legally in the country) to the employer. Through the maids may be able to run away from their cruel employers, they cannot hide. They are frequently arrested as fugitive workers, not unlike fugitive slaves of yesteryears. Unable to change their circumstances, these women endure in quiet desperation often for years.

Slavery by any other name is still slavery. In truth, there can be no “contract slavery” since only free men and free women can enter into any contracts, which leaves many of the Ethiopian women domestic workers as nothing but slaves and at best indentured servants. Article 4 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude, slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” We must all do what we can to help our Ethiopian sisters to rise up from “contract slavery”!

“Where is Ethiopia’s flag?”

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10 thoughts on “Ethiopia: Middle Passage to the Middle East

  1. Nowadays many choose to lead a slave life in the middle east better than lead life in terror in Ethiopia. Specially the Ethiopian Muslim communities are choosing slave life in middle east because of the Ethiopian Regime’s Woyane’s plan to impose an alien belief system on Ethiopian Muslims in Ethiopia. Curently many students of Awolia which is the only institution for Ethiopian Muslims in Ethiopia are being forced to leave their country , being denied of their right to education and held as hostage in their respective campuses. Awolia is nearly half a century old community institution that the Ethiopian government recently seized from the public. The institution’s academic and administrative staff members including the college Dean and different school directors were removed from their job without any prior notice, without compensation, nor service allowances.

    Muslim youth and religious teachers are being rounded up, abducted from their houses, work places and from worshiping centers and subjected to humiliation and other inhumane treatments. Several disappearance are being reported; some others had to incarcerate for several days in isolation before they were told to leave the detention centers without even brought before a court and without being told the reason for their detention.

  2. Thank you, Professor Mariam, for giving us the true nature of modern day slavery. In the time of the Atlantic slave trade, it was the Arabs who kidnapped the African black slaves and traded them with the European white goods; however, in our modern time, it is the Woyanne government that kidnaps its own daughters and trades them with the Arab slave traders. We all have a moral responsibility to stop such a dehumanizing practice of human trafficking by the Ethiopian regime and its allies – the Arab-Muslim world.

  3. This is a sad story indeed, we all know the Melles tribal junta will do nothing about it because it is a profitable enterprise for them. In the absence of a government who doesn’t recognize the people who live in enslavement in Arab countries it is incumbent on Ethiopians in the west to start a non-profit organization whose sole purpose is to expose the inhuman treatment of these poor women who have nowhere to go to get help. They need someone to dissiminate their plight, broadcast it to the world and expose this criminal enterprise for what it is.

  4. What is disgusting about Ethiopians living in the USA,many of them US citizens and as such more loyal to the US than Ethiopia, is that their pro-US propaganda and at the same time insult against the great country of Ethiopia.These guys should stop this behaviour in the future for their own sake. Of course this is not the case for all those Ethiopians.

  5. Muna #1,

    The Ethiopian Muslims have been enjoying a prosperous life since they have been in Ethiopia: Some of them, in fact, are integrated into the Ethiopian Christian societies, and the Ethiopian Christian communities have accepted them as the true citizens of the Christian land of Ethiopia. For many years the Ethiopian Muslims have been sending their children to the Ethiopian Christian schools and colleges. I myself went to the Christian school with the Ethiopian Muslim students, and there was no discrimination against the Ethiopian Muslim students. Both Muslim students and Christian students have studied together harmoniously in Christian schools throughout the Ethiopian regions.

    Perhaps, motivated by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), some of the Ethiopian Muslims may have chosen to establish their own Islamic schools, their own Islamic colleges, and their own Islamic communities for their own hidden agenda while they are able to send their children to the Ethiopian Christian schools and colleges. The next step they will do is to establish their own Islamic government, their own Islamic law – the Sharia law – and their own Mecca Medina in the heart of the Ethiopian Christian land. No doubt, some Ethiopian Muslims want separation from the Ethiopian Christian communities that have never offended them for centuries. Therefore, this time, the Woyanne regime did the right thing to close the Awolia College, to fire the Dean of this illegal Islamic college, including all the teachers. No one knows for sure what type of curriculum the Awolia College may have and what type of education it has been offering to those young Ethiopian Muslims. It may have been training them to be the future Jihadists and how to cut arms, legs, and how to behead some Ethiopian Christians and thereby forcing the Ethiopian Christians to submit, without their will, to the Islamic god, allah.

    To avoid future problems, it is the right thing to deracinate or uproot such Islamic institutions and colleges before it is too late. We peace-loving Ethiopian Christians do not want in our Christian land a second Madrasses, a Pakistani type, which trains Muslim Jihadists to join the other Jihadist in Somalis or in other Islamic countries.

    MUNA replies:

    If any Muslim in Ethiopia has a hidden agenda to make Ethiopia the Christian land a second Madrasses, a Pakistani type, which trains Muslim Jihadists to join the other Jihadist in Somalis or in other Islamic countries they would not open a college in Addis Ababa .

    Assta B. Gettu replies:

    If there is a Muslim college in the heart of Addis Ababa, the capital city of Christian Ethiopia, such a Muslim college must be immediately shut down since Muhammad the Prophet prohibits teaching art, science, and technology in any Muslim schools and colleges except teaching Jihadism; therefore, what is the purpose of establishing a Muslim college that does not train Ethiopian Muslim children to be the future scientists, engineers, artists, geographers, philosophers, and inventors? Muslim colleges, in general, teach Muslim students Quran, Hadith, and the Sharia law, and that is why all Muslims are backward people, addicted to sex, cheating, lying, and abusing children and women.

  6. In Ethiopia everything is a commodity, Meles Zenawi and his TPLF organization used to sell Tigryan women for money, there were so many Tigryans that were in the prostitution ring in Sudan, and every dime they make used to go directly to Meles Zenawi and Sibhat Nega’s pocket. Now they are trading Ethiopian children on one hand and Ethiopian maids on the other.

  7. While I appreciate your concern for the Ethiopian maids,I would have liked you to mention the following:

    1 The first paragraph about slavery from Africa to the New World, should have been about Slavery across the Sahara to the Middle East over a period of 1400 years. That figure is a staggering 120 million Africans sold compared to some 8 million sent to the New World. The men were castrated so they will not breed and the women were kept for sex slaves in Mohammadan Arab homes. This is not much different from what is happening to our sisters now. It would have been far more in line with your article. However, I will not blame you because you are a politically correct hero.

    2. You could have mentioned ( like in one sentence) the 35 Christians who were taken on Christmas day, 2011, for no other reason than worshiping their God. The 29 women were sexually violated. The guards used a single glove to “rape” all of them.
    But again, I should not expect such a small thing to bother you, should I

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