Middle East

Modern slavery

Activists are pushing African nations to end the exploitation of their domestic workers

We spoke to domestic workers who were trapped in the Middle East’s “formal slave trade”

In the small town of Mtwapa on the Kenyan coast, a group of women sit in a circle sharing tales of rape, torture and slavery. They all went to work as maids in the Middle East hoping to earn decent money. They all came home destitute and broken.

“I was just a slave. They tricked me and I was sold. I worked and worked. My boss would slap me and beat me. He said: ‘If you do not remove your clothes I will cut your neck,’” Adia, 24, told VICE News.

Locked in a bathroom, starved, beaten and raped by her employer, all Adia wanted to do was quit, but it was near impossible. Kafala, the Middle East’s visa sponsorship system, allows employers to exploit loopholes — meaning that many maids cannot leave without their permission. If Adia ran away she could be arrested for absconding, returned to her abusive employer or even imprisoned.

The moment she arrived in Saudi Arabia, Adia’s passport was confiscated and she was forced to work 20 hour days for no pay. Her boss, a policeman, raped her regularly. The only food she ate was the family’s leftovers. When the family left the house she was locked inside. After almost two years of abuse Adia threatened to kill herself and her employer finally agreed to send her back to Kenya.

Estimates suggest that 2.4 million domestic workers around the world live in forced servitude. Domestic workers in the Middle East have been traditionally recruited from Asia – mostly the Philippines, Indonesia and India. But as cases of abuse were revealed, Asian countries tightened regulations to protect their workers. Because of this, recruiters in the Middle East started expanding into East Africa.

In Kenya, poverty and high unemployment has made the offer of work in the Middle East hard to refuse. “People think they are going to have a lot of money and become rich. But they don’t know that they are going to hell,” Halima told VICE News, covering her face with her trembling hands.

Halima, 34, was recruited in Mombasa to work as a tailor for a Saudi businessman but she says she arrived in Jeddah to find that his business was a brothel and her job was as a maid. Three months after arriving she was gang-raped by her boss and his friends.

Most countries in East Africa have now banned domestic workers going to the Middle East after reports of abuse flooded in, but recruitment has merely gone underground. “Even if countries are banning workers from going to the Gulf in response to the abuse cases, it is an ineffective measure. Women still end up migrating there and will be less likely to be protected if they are abused,” says Rothna Begum from Human Rights Watch, one of many groups putting pressure on Middle Eastern countries to end Kafala.

As domestic workers, maids are excluded from labour laws in most Middle East states. There has been some progress — Jordan and Kuwait have adopted new laws covering domestic workers’ rights, and Kenya slapped a temporary ban on women working in the Middle East as maids until conditions improved. But stories of African maids committing suicide or dying in the Middle East continue to emerge.

Last year there were reports that a Kenyan woman in Saudi Arabia had been sentenced to death for committing adultery after her boss raped her and she became pregnant.

“I’m pushing for investigations. I haven’t come across one case that was investigated,” says Emma Mbura, a Kenyan politician who has been helping to rescue women trapped in the Middle East, and supporting the families of those who have arrived back in Kenya in coffins.

Mbura is calling on the Kenyan government to enter into labour agreements with Middle East nations to protect its domestic workers abroad. Many Asian countries now verify contracts to check employers agree to a minimum salary and working conditions before allowing domestic workers to go abroad. India and Sri Lanka also require sponsors to provide security deposits that are returned once the worker has safely returned home.

Paul Adhoch works for the Mtwapa-based charity Trace Kenya, which teaches women the telltale signs of exploitation and tracks women overseas, calling embassies if they are in trouble. Given the lack of safety mechanisms or the political will for change, he says it is better “not to tell women not to go, but to teach them to travel safely.”

“People know about Kafala, but nobody has raised it as a major point of concern,” he says. “This has been a formal slave trade for years.”

Cover: AP

M-F 7:30PM HBO