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For Ethiopian Women, Work Abroad Is Opportunity and Risk of a Lifetime

Amid nascent efforts to introduce labor protections for migrant domestic workers in the Gulf, women who returned to Ethiopia describe why working in the Middle East entails both great dangers and opportunities, and how the experience changed their lives in complex ways.

Written by Magdalena Vaculciakova Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
Fiyori’s father helped her find an employment agency to take her to the Middle East. He spent over a year trying to get her back.Noel Rojo

DEGA, Tigray Region, Ethiopia – The house in Saudi Arabia was huge, with endless rooms blasted with cool air conditioning, recalls Tsega of her years as a migrant domestic worker.

Now back in Dega, her village in northern Ethiopia, the 45-year-old mother of four describes her former life in the Gulf while sitting under an olive tree, as the sun reaches its peak in the sky.

The air is thick with heat in this arid region of Tigray, which suffered greatly from the 1984 famine and more recent droughts caused by El Niňo. There is no electricity in Dega, no mill to process flour and women have to walk two miles to collect water.

Tsega’s family has no land, and few means to earn money, so Tsega’s husband eventually decided to leave for Saudi Arabia. Tsega agreed, hoping he could give their family a chance at a better life. But once he left, he did not send any money back. “I did not trust him, I thought he was not interested in me anymore,” she says.

In 2008, Tsega decided to go to Saudi Arabia to search for her husband and earn her own money to support the family. Her mother agreed to look after Tsega’s youngest, a one-year-old boy, while her eldest daughter would care for the rest of the siblings. “I was very sad leaving my children behind,” she says. “I just wanted to earn money so that we can have a better house.”

So Tsega joined hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian men and women seeking to pull their families out of poverty by working overseas. Women in particular have filled the demand for domestic workers in the Middle East.

Women often face greater social pressure to migrate than men, said Ethiopian gender and development specialist Meskerem Mulatu Legesse. As women and girls have lower education and employment rates but face the same expectations to take care of their parents, becoming a foreign domestic worker and sending their wages home is one way to help. Some girls choose to leave in order not to become a burden of their families; in other cases, parents send their daughters to the Middle East in the hope they’ll find a better life there.

The economic opportunities often come with severe personal costs. For years, weak labor laws in the Middle East and East Africa, unregulated and unscrupulous employment agencies and irregular migration routes have exposed women to danger and abuse.

“Many Ethiopian domestic workers in the Gulf States do not get paid, even though they have large workloads,” says Mulatu Legesse. “Employers very often keep their passports, the migrants cannot leave the houses and they are not allowed to rest.”

In 2013, Ethiopia announced a ban on domestic workers from going to the Middle East, which remained in place until earlier this year. At the time, Ethiopian authorities said some 460,000 Ethiopians were working legally in the Middle East, while humanitarian groups estimated as many as double that number were undocumented workers.

Tsega, a mother of four, traveled to the Gulf to find her husband after he left for work but didn’t send any money back. (Noel Rojo)

Tsega paid a smuggler to transport her to Saudi Arabia, crossing Djibouti, the Red Sea and Yemen, who delivered her to a woman in Saudi Arabia who arranged her first job. But before long, Tsega ran away from her employer. “I did not have to clean or iron only, but also tolerate inhumane treatment,” she says. “I escaped without asking for my two months salary.”

After nine months in Saudi Arabia, Tsega found her husband. Over the next five years, she worked for two other families; even though they treated her better, she felt a certain relief when she was deported in 2013, during Saudi Arabia’s mass expulsion of undocumented workers.

Tsega explains that she would never have left Saudi Arabia on her own because she was making good money, but she was happy to be going back to see her kids. There have been several further waves of deportations since; Saudi Arabia recently announced it had arrested 1.25 million undocumented residents since November 2017.

During her five years in the Gulf, Tsega was able to send around 30,000 birr ($1,090) to her family in Ethiopia that they spend mostly on food. Back home, she returned to caring for her family, like most other women in her community. Her husband had been deported to Ethiopia before her, but still hasn’t found regular paid work.

She advises other Ethiopians not to go to Saudi Arabia. “I would not even pee in their direction,” she says, with disdain. Yet, Tsega was not able to convince her 18yearold son to stay in Ethiopia. He left for Saudi Arabia eight months ago and she has not heard from him since.

Opportunities and Dangers of Migration

Despite the 2013 ban, irregular migration from Ethiopia continued and, according to the International Labor Organization, may have increased.

Ethiopia lifted the ban this February, after passing a new law regulating employment agencies and establishing more training centers to prepare workers before they leave, including information about their rights, cultural norms and basic Arabic.

In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, girls often feel a responsibility to take the financial burdens of their families on their shoulders. (Noel Rojo)

The government has also signed or is drafting bilateral labor agreements with Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar and the UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia – the top destination for Ethiopians in the Middle East.

Under the Saudi-Ethiopia agreement, Ethiopian workers must have their own bank accounts and salary deductions are prohibited. The draft deal with Kuwait sets a maximum of 10 working hours per day, establishes a minimum wage and forbids employers from keeping workers’ passports.

The push to regulate migrant work followed a spate of videos showing harrowing violence against Ethiopian workers in the Middle East, including of a woman being dragged down the street by her hair in Lebanon and another filmed helplessly falling from a balcony in Kuwait.

Gulf countries have also reacted to a few cases of violence against employers. After an Ethiopian housemaid murdered a 19-year-old Kuwaiti woman in 2014, the Gulf state instituted its own ban on Ethiopian domestic workers.

Kuwait lifted that ban earlier this year, fearing a shortage of domestic workers after the Philippines briefly forbade women from working in Kuwait when a Filipina woman was found dead in her employer’s freezer.

Lack of sleep, experiencing abusive behavior, exhaustion, all this leads to frustration or even aggression of domestic workers,” says Mulatu Legesse, who has researched trauma among migrant domestic workers who returned to Ethiopia. “There were cases of maids trying to commit suicide or to attack their employers; many migrants come back to Ethiopia with mental issues.”

“Very few talk about sexual violence as it is painful. Not even their families know,” says Legesse.

Fiyori is trying to get back to normal life by taking care of chickens and making a living by selling their eggs. (Noel Rojo)

In 2014, many of Fiyori’s friends were heading to Saudi Arabia from the Ethiopian-Eritrean border town of Zela Anbesa. “My family’s income was declining … I also wanted to help my family,” says the 27-year-old.

Her father, Mesele, helped her find a recruitment agency to take her to Saudi Arabia. He said they family was not aware of Ethiopia’s ban on traveling for domestic work. The agency seemed legal, we did not know what the risks were,” says Mesele.

But when Fiyori arrived in Saudi Arabia, her employer took away her passport and forced her to work without a salary for two years. “Even when I was tired and wanted to sleep, they forced me to work. The husband’s brothers were beating me, too,” she says.

Fiyori lost contact with her family in Ethiopia. After a brief phone call to her father when she first arrived, her employers took away her phone.

Mesele tried everything he could to get his daughter back to Ethiopia. He couldn’t bear to tell his wife that he’d lost touch with her, so kept making excuses why his wife could not speak to their daughter. For more than a year, he was constantly traveling to Addis Ababa, searching for help from the Ethiopian government offices. He told his wife he was going for medical checks at a hospital in the capital.

After failing to get help from the recruitment agency and the Ethiopian police, he reached the Ethiopian embassy in Saudi Arabia and gave them the phone number Fiyori first called him from. Saudi police were eventually able to locate the phone; they found Fiyori and flew her back – penniless – to Ethiopia.

Fiyori now lives with her parents; she has a few chickens and is planning to sell their eggs. She refers to Saudi Arabia as a prison. “I tell everybody not to go,” she says.

As she prepares coffee in her parents’ house, her meandering recollections of her time in Saudi Arabia are hard to follow and make sense of. “She has been back for two years, but she still suffers from traumas,” explains Mesele.

The Difficult Path Home

How well Ethiopia’s new laws and bilateral agreements are implemented in practice over the coming months will be key to more women returning from the Gulf with savings instead of traumas. For some returnees, their lives and families are forever changed by the experience.

Serkalem, 42, spent 11 years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital. “My husband was not working, and we had to pay for rent and our children’s education,” she says. For years, what kept Serkalem going through sleepless nights and overtime work was the thought of her family saving money for a better future.

With her little stall in a local market in Addis Ababa, Serkalem is able to take care of herself and her mother, whom she lives with since her family fell apart after she went abroad to work. (Noel Rojo)

When Serkalem returned to Ethiopia in 2013, she came back to what she describes as “a dark world.”

“I lost everything. My children got on the wrong path when I was not here, I separated from my husband and the family spent all the money I earned,” she says. Serkalem now sells soaps and vegetables at the market in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

“Migration is not worth it if you have a family. I lost the love of my children, which is more than money,” she says.

A recent study published in Globalization and Health asked Ethiopian returnees what advice they had for other women traveling to the Gulf to be domestic workers. They advised cultural awareness, polite assertiveness, safeguarding their earnings and keeping a phone – hidden if need be – in case of emergencies.

Many women interviewed for the study said they had heard reports of abuse before they left, but put it down to bad luck and focused instead on success stories.

Tigist, 27, was in many ways among the fortunate ones. In 2012, her sister, who was already abroad sent Tigist money so that she could pay a smuggler to fly her to Saudi Arabia. Her employer treated her well, she was even able to save up money. But one day when she went to the bank to withdraw her savings, she was robbed and injured.

Tigist’s restaurant has two branches and seven employees. She wants to expand her business and employ women considering migrating to encourage them to stay in Ethiopia. (Noel Rojo)

“My employer allowed me to fly to Ethiopia for three months to heal when they found out my leg was broken,” Tigist says. She never went back.

Now living in Addis Ababa, Tigist has rebuilt her life despite losing her savings. She took business development classes with an Ethiopian organization, Women in Self-Employment, and opened up a restaurant that now has two branches.

“I want to have more restaurants and employ girls who are thinking of migrating, so that they stay here, in Ethiopia, as working in Saudi Arabia can be challenging,” she says.

Journalist Magdalena Vaculciakova and photographer Noel Rojo are working on a multimedia project called Women Who Stay covering stories of the day-to-day lives of women who stay behind after their family members migrate.

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