Ethiopia: Debt Bondage and Modern Slavery

The experiences of Ethiopian women who are victims of trafficking to the neighboring countries are very saddening. These victims are trapped by a web of traffickers, who control their lives throughout the process. The process includes various forms of exploitations until the point of delivery. These women are subjected to human rights violations at all stages. Studies have found out that these women are pushed out of their residence by poverty and other factors. There is also a pull factor that attracts them with promises of better job opportunities and salary.

The traffickers use false promises and subject the women to numerous violations of human rights throughout the travel to the destination. They are subjected to the conditions of forced labor and prostitution. Young women from all over the country are trafficked to the Gulf States and neighboring countries for domestic bondage. Some Ethiopians including men, women and children are inevitably victimized by human trafficking. The women are particularly vulnerable to inhuman physical and psychological tortures. These include violent death, sexual exploitation and rape, insult and intimidation, and beatings during travel.

Upon arrival at the destination point, most women are exposed to various forms of exploitation. They are forced to work until they cover the debt, they have incurred for the services provided to them by the brokers. It is reported that women become slaves, losing all control over their bodies and lives. They are also forced to become prostitutes by the brokers who collect money on their behalf. Traffickers use several ways to leave Ethiopia. They either take flight from international airports to the destination country or cross the border to neighboring countries using the "desert routes."

Both routes are not risk-free. Traveling on foot through the deserts is dangerous as people, particularly women, perish in the desert due to shortage of water and food. The road is infested with robbers who sexually abuse women. Most of the women are attached to the traffickers as they are falsely promised to have jobs upon arrival at the point of destination. Most women travel to the neighboring countries to engage in domestic work. There are also reports that some women are trafficked for the purposes of marriage to rich persons in the neighboring countries. Mostly, they end up as third or fourth wives to the rich persons.

Some women, men and children are vulnerable to the crimes of trafficking. Nearly all of them are faced with several human rights abuses while crossing the borders to arrive at their destination. Regardless of the means of travel they use, they are determined to reach the country of job opportunities. Their interest is only to have access to jobs after leaving Ethiopia through various routes. These routes are not safe as they are infested with robbers, who are hidden in different places in the desert. Women are the preferred targets for robbery and sexual abuse.

Studies show that various countries are dependent on trafficked workers to fill labor shortages in various sectors of the economy. These sectors are low paying, dangerous, and poorly-regulated. These jobs are dirty and degrading ones. Thus, trafficking is an effort made to place the needy people in these jobs illegally, and make profits out of it.

A major cause of human trafficking is impunity that results from insufficient or inadequate laws, poor enforcement, ineffective penalties, corruption, complacency and invisible operations. Impunity contributes to the spread of women trafficking. The legal inadequacies give criminals in human trafficking ample opportunities to evade the law. Criminals avoid punishment for their offences through bribes to law enforcement agents. Sometimes, there is close cooperation between these agents and the traffickers, the legal and illegal operators.

As indicated earlier, there is a triangle of human trafficking. These are related to the factors of supply, demand and impunity that create condition in which trafficking in women lead to ample wealth. This allows for high profits at low risk for the traffickers, but with grave human rights violations for the victims. Human trafficking is, therefore, a violent form of modern slavery, committed against the fundamental human rights of women in the country of origin, transit as well as destination countries.

As studies indicated, following the oil boom in the Gulf States, the demand for foreign domestic workers, mostly women, to take up jobs less favored by the locals has been on the rise. Migration to the Middle East and to the Gulf States has increased. Now, it is taken as a means of earning a decent income especially among women from urban families. The destinations are favored by women workers for reasons of geographical proximity and the low education qualifications required to secure an entry visa.

Scholars identified three types of modern slavery: "chattel slavery," in which slaves are either captured or born or sold into permanent servitude. "Debt bondage," is servitude that is ensured against the loan of money and where its length and nature is indeterminate. The third is "contract slavery," where contracts are "legal fictions" rather than legally binding employment agreements, and thus conceal what are the real conditions of slavery.

The current situation of Ethiopian women can be safely said to fit to the last category of slavery. They must first secure a visa through a method of sponsorship known as kafala, which legally binds them to their prospective employers. Although both the employees and their employers or sponsors are within their legal rights to break their contracts it is often a trick on paper. This is a system that already puts Ethiopian migrant workers entirely dependent upon the mercy of their employers.

The process is facilitated by legally registered employment agencies based in Addis Ababa. But what is not clearly communicated to many would be migrant workers is that once in their host countries they are immediately required to "surrender" their passports and other travel documents to their employers. Before all things begin, the system of exploitation is already in place and is appallingly "legal," until recently.

A report by Human Rights Watch revealed that several domestic workers have died in the Middle East. Some committed suicides, others threw themselves from high-rise buildings, and a few attempted to escape their employers. These employees are often denied food and medication to reduce cost or to incapacitate and make them docile. Denial of medication can also be used to confine the victims. As a result, a good number of them return to Ethiopia with physical disabilities sustained during abuses. In the worst case, some of them lose parts of their body organs, particularly their kidneys, under discreet circumstances. There are also cases whereby mentally troubled Ethiopian women were found abandoned in and around airports.

Human Rights Watch has revealed that women domestic workers have been killed while working. Also, a good number of maids have been incarcerated for crimes they committed in self-defense when attacked by their employers. Some of these maids have been waiting for death sentences, while others have been jailed for life.

Many of the cases that have been presented to the courts have not been supported with evidence by the Middle East police. In the meantime, the immigration office in Ethiopia has been crowded with prospective maids queuing to acquire legal documents to go to these countries of horrors. The majority of the applicants are women who want to go to the Middle East in search of jobs. It's an endless cycle of viciousness. One of the solutions to this problem may be to promote economic development, create jobs and income for the poor in Ethiopia. Also, the ethnic entrepreneurs should be blind to the ill-fated, hapless, wretched, unfortunate and miserable Ethiopian poor.

More From: Ethiopian Herald

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