Addis Fortune (Addis Ababa)

16 December 2012

Ethiopia: Going the Distance for Less Pay

By 4:30pm Tuesday December 11, 2012, the Main Department for Immigration & Nationality Affairs, commonly known as Immigration, is deserted.

Two young women, sitting on the stairs, ask the reporter where they can get a taxi to Sebategna and how long it will take. Around Sebategna, in Merkato area, one can easily find cheap rooms to rent. Another young woman, who is sitting nearby, joins them. Her name is Fetya Bahru.

Fetya, 26, is from Butajra, in the Southern Regional State. She came here seeking a passport. Like other girls in her locality, she has a desire to help her family by migrating as a domestic worker toSaudi Arabia. She has, however, no idea of the type of work that awaits her.

She does not know a single Arabic word and has no knowledge of electrical appliances.

"I can manage them little by little - through practice," she says.

But for "Merry" Nigussie (a name adopted after she immigrated), who returned from Sharja, in the United Arab Emirates, two months ago, learning said skills in such a tough working environment is not easy.

Being employed as a domestic worker in theMiddle East, without the acquisition of suitable training, is risky business. Although employers may have some patience, on the language problem, not being able to manage home appliances adequately can prove to be fatal.

Merry's mother supported her family with the meager money she earned selling vegetables on the street. Merry chose to go to theMiddle East, in the hope of being able to offer her mother a route out of this work, and to assist her two younger sisters in completing their education.

Her first destination wasBeirut, where she moved before the Ethiopian government had ratified their first emigrant workers' law, the Private Employment Agency Proclamation No 104/1998. After working there for three years, she moved on toDubai, where she remained for a further seven years.

In her opinion, hoping to learn from your experiences once in the Middle Eastis like playing with fire.

"The threat to your life may come from not being aware of the safety rules attached to washing chemicals. Simply not knowing the safety regulations of electrical appliances, such as vacuum cleaners, laundry machines, or irons, can end your life," she said.

She also says that unskilled and uncertified employment offers much less in the way of economic reward. Such inexperienced workers are engaged in low-paid but exhausting jobs, such as; cleaning and sanitation works, and not in babysitting or cooking, which are highly paid jobs.

"You can take me as an example," she said. "With no less experience, I am less paid, but have more work than my trained Filipino and Indonesian peers."

Despite having 10 years worth of experience, she secured a monthly salary of just 600 Dirham (nearly 3,000 Br), which is lower even than the 700-900 Dirham paid to fresh workers, coming from thePhilippinesandIndonesia.

"Besides the skills and certification differences, I think their governments negotiate better wages for their citizens with the employer countries," she said.

The two countries have a strict rule on the employment of emigrant domestic workers. They not only enforce secured skills training and certification, but also comprehensive pre-departure educational programs, on the religion, language, traditions, and laws of the countries their citizens go to. Moreover, they soundly negotiate a minimum wage for their citizens working in Middle Eastern countries.

Manila Times wrote, in November, that the Filipino government had recently signed an agreement with the Saudi Arabian government on a Standard Employment Contract (SEC) of household workers, in order to increase the minimum salary from 200 dollars to 400 dollars.

Girma Sheleme, public relations & communication directorate director at the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs (MoLSA), concurs that unskilled emigrant workers suffer economic disadvantages. He added that workers fromEthiopiawere paid a meager 180 dollars, in comparison to the 450-500 dollars received by their Filipino and Indonesian counterparts. Among the reasons for these differences, are the comparative skill and proficiency levels, along with the training procedures of the emigrant domestic employment system.

The Ethiopian migrant workers were given just half a day of training. Their Filipino and Indonesian counterparts, on the other hand, received two to three months worth of regular training before they were sent to theMiddle East.

Trainees such as Rohamad Ali (far inside) and Fatuma Mohamed (close) look forward to learn skills that would make them earn better, while Helina Tsegaye (middle), their trainer, helps them get it right.

Although the Employers Exchange Services Proclamation No. 632/2009, which repealed proclamation No. 104/1998, states that a private employment agent "has to ensure that the worker has acquired the necessary skills for intended employment abroad and to produce evidence to prove such fact", there is no detailed specification on the duration, content or evaluation of the training provided. The employment agents do not have to confirm that the skills have been acquired and the government is not adequately enforcing the Proclamation.

Both seem to rather be governed by Proclamation No. 104/1998, which states that each agent has an obligation "to provide the necessary orientation to the worker, with regard to the work and the country of his employment, before the contract of employment is signed."

"To be honest, most of us [employment agents] do not give them training. We even need translators to communicate with some. The Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs gives us a quota every week and we send them to be trained by a half day film only," an agent told Fortune anonymously.

"As there is no binding directive, the workers do not willingly come to the training and the agents are not forced to provide it. Most of the migrants are sent abroad after watching the film at MoLSA, and having a couple of hours of orientation at the agencies," says Fitsum Gebremedhin, general manager of G.M.A Foreign Employment Agency.

The number of Ethiopian immigrant workers going to the Middle East, in particular toSaudi ArabiaandKuwait, is increasing year upon year. For example, there were 14,946 legally employed immigrant workers, of which 13,528 or 90.5pc were female, in 2009/2010. This number then rose drastically to 42,233 and 198,667, during the two years that followed, with female immigrant workers accounting for 93.6pc and 94.6pc, respectively.

Between September and November of this year, 44,859 people, 93.9pc of them female, have legally departed to theMiddle East. This figure is three-times that of the annual reported data back in 2009/2010.

This figure, too, does not include the estimated 1,000 human traffickers, in Addis Abeba, who have not been legally registered, according to Girma. There are now 300 legally registered employment agents in the country.

These legally registered agents, however, barely offer any training to the domestic workers before they are sent abroad. The law, which obliges that agents send the workers to their destination country within one month of signing a contract, does so without stipulating the minimum skills training required.

Pre-departure training programs for migrant workers are yet to be enforced inEthiopia.

Last year, MoLSA delivered a directive to all employment agents, stating that they must provide and approve appropriate training to migrant workers, and to, award an approval certificate for the training, as of November 22, 2011. This directive, however, has not yet been implemented, and the Ministry has failed also to introduce any additional measures.

Rather, it is private businesses that seem to be gradually moving in to fill the gap. Among such, are A New Start Training Centre, Ethio Gulf Training Centre, and Aelaf Counseling & Skills Training Centre.

A New Start Training Centre, located in the Nefas Silk Lafto District, is owned by Hendrik De Vlugt, a Dutch national. Licenced, with a capital of one million Br in 2012, it is now training around 25 workers in a variety of skills, according to De Vlugt.

"We started training in mid-October. We train them for 40 days in different skills," De Vlugt said.

The training covers hotel and household management, civil security and language. The training centre charges 1,000 Br for the entire training period.

Ethio-Gulf Overseas Workers Training Centre Plc was established by three foreign employment agencies, G.M.A, Al-Lode, and Meftihe, with a capital of two million Br, back in 2008. The centre has so far conducted 10 rounds of training, according to Birhanu Adam, a retired lieutenant colonel who coordinates the centre.

"We have trained a total of 1,840 migrant workers coming through the three agencies. We train them for 15 days and give them a certificate acknowledged by the Addis Abeba City Government Educational & Training Agency," he said.

Aelaf Counseling & Skills Training Centre, established by 20 employment agencies, with a capital of 1.5 million Br, last January, has trained nearly 400 workers, according to Mezgebu Assefa, owner of Dmas Foreign Employment Agency and a shareholder in Aelaf.

"We schedule training for 15 days, but most of them do not show any interest in training for more than two or three days," said Mezgebu.

Regardless of the duration of training and other facility differences, both centres, Ethio-Gulf and A New Start, provide the basic training required. Both have training rooms that resemble Arabian households. They provide training in ironing, laundry, cooking implements and vacuum cleaners.

The trainees are informed about cleaning chemicals, food spices and other related items. They also teach them essential Arabic words, such as the names of utensils and other basic communicative vocabulary. In addition, they also help to acquaint the trainees with the culture and traditions of their destination countries.

The capacity of these centres, however, is far too limited when compared to the number of people actually going to theMiddle East, although new centres are joining the market. Last year, for example, the Saudi Arabian Embassy, in Addis Abeba, announced that it was issuing up to 1,500 visas to Ethiopian domestic workers each day.

The Federal Government, however, is preparing to take the training to a regional level. In November, Filipino and Ethiopian professionals conducted training for individuals from all regions of the country, for 26 days, in Bishoftu. The plan is to integrate it within the regional Technical Vocational Education & Training (TVET) that has been put in place by the Ministry of Education.

If fully implemented, the challenge of immigrating to the Middle East could soon become increasingly complex, as those who seek to go may first have to pass the Certificate of Conformance (COC) exam.

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