African Women Fall Victim to a New Form of Slavery

Slavery is very much a part of today’s global economy. It rivals and in some regions eclipses the international drug trade. There are nearly twenty-seven million slaves worldwide, generating $1.3 billionin annual profits. Some estimates show a world slave population as high as two hundred million.

During previous eras where slavery was common, the new owner was given a deed or title to its newly acquired property similar to the receipt a cashier hands over to the customer whose recently purchased goods.

The kafeel system could be likened to that deed or title in that the labour sending countries agree to the relinquishing of their workers passports upon arrival in the destination country. The kafeel or kafala system is a sponsorship system that only allows expatriate workers to enter, work in, and leave certain countries with the permission of their sponsor or employers, who are locals to that country. It's common in countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where migrant domestic workers are common.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are an estimated six million women working as maids in the Middle East. African countries like Ethiopia, Madagascar, Sudan as well as other various East and West African countries provide the bulk of household and cleaning services.

Languishing in Injustice

The main women’s prison in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli maintains a stagnant pool of migrant women many, who have spent more than a year awaiting the possibility of having their cases being brought before a judge. Few have access to institutional support from their embassies or consulates.

Waiting outside were two female Lebanese prison guards who were not exactly thrilled to see visitors.

“They have a gang ranking system in here and the Blacks are on the lowest level and the Filipinos are on the higher level,” says one Ethiopian detainee in her native language of Amharic. “The guards tell us to call our families so that they will send us money, which would make our time in jails easier.”

With tears in their eyes, the women press their hands against the glass barrier: physical contact with visitors is forbidden for inmates but this simple gesture signals their gratitude at the simple gifts of food, clothes, shampoo and feminine products brought to them by Yurda - a self-proclaimed social worker, community leader and domestic worker who has been in Lebanon for over eleven years – who has dedicated her free time to organizing donations.

Mixed in with criminals and murderers, many of these women were caught on the streets without papers after running away from their employers because of abuse, rape, starvation, forced confinement or accused of stealing.

“Female migrant workers are losing years off their lives by sitting in detention and one way of preventing this is by allowing the worker to keep their aqama (working papers) and original passport and let the employer retain the photocopy,” says Kenyan activist Naimeh Pelot.

Modern Day Slavery

Lacking legal protections, domestic workers are among the most exploited and abused workers in the world.

Rights advocates have long argued that exclusion from labour laws and recruitment-related abuses has left domestic workers in the Middle East vulnerable to exploitation, sexual abuse, forced labour, debt bondage, trafficking and conditions akin to slavery.

However, a new ILO Convention on Domestic Workers adopted in June aims to ensure that these women are treated as human beings.

“When male migrant workers come to work in construction or other service and industry sectors in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, they are protected under the labour law. Even if they don’t have full rights their work is recognized as work under the law, which is not the case for domestic workers,” said Simel Esim, Gender Specialist in the ILO's Regional Office for the Arab States in an interview.

“Jordan and Lebanon are the only countries where Ministries of Labour are in charge of a significant number of the institutional responsibilities regarding migrant domestic workers,” adds Esim.

“In the case of the GCC countries the oversight of domestic workers is under the jurisdiction of the Ministries of Interior instead of the Ministries of Labour, which leaves domestic workers outside the purview of the labour law. The emphasis on domestic workers is, therefore about their recognition as workers, with equal rights to workers in other sectors.”

The new convention requires governments to regulate private employment agencies that impose heavy debt burdens or misinform migrant domestic workers about their jobs, prohibit the practice of deducting domestic workers’ salaries to pay recruitment fees, investigate complaints and labour inspection in private homes.

Today recruitment agencies eager to cash in on this lucrative labour market lure these vulnerable women into debt bondage. Rights groups report that agency fees ranging from $200 to $400, must be paid before departure. However, for most women their first few salaries go toward repaying the debt.

“Policies relating to trafficking need to fall more in line with the reality of forced migration globally because most migrant workers are not the stereotypical sex worker chained to a bed,” Pardis Mahdavi, author of "Gridlock: Labour, Migration and Human Trafficking" said. “In fact they are men and women that are tied to metaphorical chains like debt and poverty that forces these workers to migrate and remain in poor working conditions.”