Nearly everyone complains about their job. As a typically overworked and underpaid office employee – having to come in on Saturdays when you absolutely don’t want to, not to mention the meager salary and having to deal with the the boss’s ‘strongly worded’ emails – it’s easy to draw superfluous comparisons between working 9 to 5 and slavery. And we often do when we joke about what we have to go through at work. However, for many Africans seeking employment abroad the idea of slave labour is not just a cliché but an actual reality.

Many women (and a sizeable number of men) are lured to the Middle East with the promise of lucrative employment. These women often go through horrendous ordeals, as was the case with Carris Chepkirui, who was found hanging in her employer’s home only three days after she started work. Her sister had just returned from Lebanon after having endured abuse at the hands of her employers. She was only allowed to go back to Kenya after threatening suicide. There have even been reported instances of people who have had to be treated for dog bites while others have been attacked with candles after trying to negotiate for better working conditions.

Within Kenya the problem has reached such heights that the government has been forced to step in following ‘rampant cases of abuse’. Ethiopia and Madagascar have similarly set bans on their citizens seeking employment in Lebanon due to the high number of reported cases of abuse over the years.

Yet despite these country’s bans, the number of Africans flocking to the Middle East continues to rise. The region is still the work destination of choice for many female migrant workers. Every year the promise of higher wages and steady employment draws millions of migrants from Africa and Asia. In Saudi Arabia the once lax immigration laws allowed the country to have the largest number of foreign workers in the region. So much so that, at one point, they made up more than half of the Saudi labour force.

The problem African migrants face seems to stem from two sources: the lack of regulation of domestic work within the national labour framework and the fact that workers are not aware of their rights, coupled with an inability to speak the local language. This leads to a culture of unhealthy dependency on their employers.

Within what is known as the ‘MENA Region’ (Middle East and North Africa) almost all domestic work exists outside of the legislative national labour framework and runs on the kafala system. This system allows the ‘kafeel’ (sponsor) a great deal of power over the migrant worker including the ability to enter and exit the country. If sponsorship is withdrawn then the employee loses all ability to stay within the host country. The rug is literally pulled from under their feet.

Libyan domestic worker Hawiyah Awal. Credit: Simba Russeau/IPS

Libyan domestic worker Hawiyah Awal. Credit: Simba Russeau/IPS

There is little or no space to negotiate and things such as days off are often a luxury rather than a standard. There have been instances of domestic workers not being allowed outside because the employer wants to ‘protect their investment’. A survey done in Lebanon showed that a staggering 70 percent of employers limited their domestic workers ability to move outside the home.

There is also the deeper underlying problem of racism. This, coupled with strong xenophobic currents, causes many locals to view migrant workers from the continent as either ‘job stealers’ or commodities. In a recent interview one man from Niger stated said that employers often felt they could do ‘whatever they want with us’, and ordinary citizens often held their noses when they walked by.

Although there are organisations such as Tamkeen in Jordan, Caritas in Lebanon and Helpers in Egypt that seek to help migrant labourers in these situations there is still a great deal more to be done. Even though we are no longer being bundled into boats for the price of a few beads we are still vulnerable to the tides of international demand and supply.

High levels of poverty and a lack of employment opportunities within our own borders is pushing our people into these dangerous positions. We seem to have jumped from the pan of one slave master into the fire of another and we need to address this on a national and continental level.