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From the International Slave Trade to the International Maid Trade

In what classifies as modern day slavery, Ethiopian women sent to work in the Middle East have few rights and are subject to widespread abuse.

In the days of the Atlantic slave trade, the Middle Passage was the journey of slave trading ships from the west coast of Africa to the New World. Portuguese, British, French, Spanish, Dutch and other slave traders maintained outposts along the African coast to transact their business with their local slave raiding partners. Millions of African slaves were sold or traded for manufactured goods or raw materials. In the gruelling journey, the slaves were often shackled and chained to the floor to gain maximum cargo capacity. Many died from disease, starvation, dehydration and suffocation. Many also committed suicide by jumping overboard. Those who resisted their masters were beaten and even killed. Plantation owners treated the slaves like cattle; and those working in the fields were often flogged and beaten. Female slaves were the objects of sexual desire and abuse by their masters. The law required runaway slaves (‘fugitive slaves’) who escaped their bondage to be returned to their masters who punished them severely.

There is a Middle Passage of sorts taking place today from Ethiopia to the Middle East. It is what lawyer Khaled Ali Beydoun and others have described as the Ethiopian ‘Maid Trade’. Today a network of unscrupulous modern-day slave-traffickers (‘human traffickers’) and ‘private labour employment agencies’ operating under license by the ruling regime in Ethiopia ship thousands of young Ethiopian women to various parts of the Middle East to work as domestic servants in what amounts to ‘contract slavery’ with little follow up and monitoring to ensure their well-being and welfare in their host countries.

The plight of Ethiopian women domestic workers in the Middle East has been documented in Bina Fernandez’s survey research (Ch. 7). In 2009, ‘over 74,000 people risked their lives to enter Yemen en route to Saudi Arabia, of which 42,000 were Ethiopians.’ According to official data, 91 per cent of Ethiopian domestic workers in the Middle East were single women, 83 per cent were between the age of 20–30 , 63 per cent had some secondary education, 26 per cent were illiterate, 71 per cent were Muslim and 93 per cent earned US$100–150 per month. Some of these women ‘officially registered with the government as a migrant worker’. Others ‘worked through illegal brokers who are viciously exploitative [and"> often take the women’s money and sometimes abandon them in the desert before they even reach Somalia.’

The ‘Middle Passage’ of Middle East ‘contract slavery’ for the young Ethiopian women is unspeakably harrowing. Their working conditions are described as slave-like, except, as Beydoun argues, ‘Shackles and whips have been replaced by more inventive designs to dehumanize, suppress, and subsequently enslave persons for economic or sexual purposes.’ Fernandez reported that the women live-in domestic workers she interviewed were ‘on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and working between 10 and 20 hours daily.’ Some of the women pulled ‘double duty - that is, cleaning or doing laundry for a second household, usually a relative of their employer.’ Most of these women got ‘only one day off a month, or no break at all.’ Many of these women experienced ‘complete physical exhaustion’ and often suffered ‘mental breakdown’ unable to ‘tell what day of the week it was, or what time it was.’ They faced extreme physical, mental and sexual abuse..

Fernadez further found that that ‘verbal abuse by employers is commonplace’ including ‘racial insults and discriminatory behaviour (such as separate food and dishes for them) as is non-payment or underpayment of wages. To escape their conditions, some are forced to become ‘runaways’. They end up doing ‘live-out domestic workers, brewing and selling illicit liquor, or engaging in sex work.’ But they are trapped. Fernandez explains, ‘Their lack of legal status makes them vulnerable to greater exploitation if they are detected, as they risk blackmail, imprisonment, and/or deportation. If they wish to leave voluntarily, they often have to pay high fines for exit visas.’


In a recent Youtube video, an unnamed Ethiopian woman confronts a representative of the regime of Meles Zenawi in a meeting hall in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She complains about the mistreatment and dehumanisation she and other maids continue to face in life and in death in the UAE, and laments the depraved indifference of her ‘government’ to speak up, defend and protect them from gross abuses of human rights.

‘…If we run away from [our abusive employers">, there is a chance we can die. There is a woman who tells us to run away. But they don’t help us. If [we"> run away, we need money to pay for rent and food. [We"> don’t have to run away. As much as possible, it is better to help [us">. When we live in this country [UAE">, sometimes we die. Many of us are buried here. Why must an Ethiopian be buried in the Emirates? Why is that our government does not check on us, follow up on our conditions, ask about us? Why should I be buried in a foreign country? It does not matter if we are Christian or Muslim. This question has deprived me sleep. When I bow to pray, I have not been able to do so properly. Only God knows. All I do is cry. Even our dead bodies must not be buried in this country. [There was a domestic worker accused of killing her employer."> It is possible she may have done something wrong. Her government should stand and defend her and advocate for her. She should be punished as appropriate [if she is guilty"> by her family or the law…We learned [within a few days of her arrest"> that she was killed by the authorities [in the Emirates">.’

As she concluded her statement, this young woman cries out in pain, her voice quivering, tears in her eyes and pleading for an answer from someone, anyone:

‘Where is Ethiopia’s flag? I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take it anymore…’


The response of Zenawi’s regime to the plight of these women is morally calloused and depraved. Fernandez reported: ‘The term “runaway” was used in a pejorative sense by one Ethiopian government official and several of the PEA [private employment agency"> representatives during interviews, to describe these women as delinquents who abandon their contractual responsibilities because they do not want to work hard, and want an easy life.’ Beydoun argues that the ruling regime’s efforts to combat trafficking in Lebanon were symbolic and ineffective despite the fact that an inter-agency anti-trafficking task force had been established to deal with the problem. He concluded, ‘Trafficked women are particularly vulnerable where their own governments fail to adequately protect them.’

Since 1998, Zenawi’s regime has put in place a ‘Private Employment Agency Proclamation No. 104/1998’, which provided for licensing of private employment agencies and the prosecution of illegal brokers. In 2009, this Proclamation was repealed and updated by the ‘Employment Exchange Services Proclamation No. 632/2009’, which required private employment agencies, among other things, ‘not to recruit a job seeker below the age of 18 years; not to terminate the contract of employment before acquiring the consent of the worker in writing; get approval from the Ethiopian embassy or consular office to form a new contract or to modify the existing one; register a worker sent abroad, within fifteen days, with the nearest Ethiopian embassy or consular office.’ The ‘private employment agency which sends workers abroad’ is mandated to ensure that the working conditions in the host country not ‘be less favorable to an Ethiopian than the rights and benefits of those who work in a similar type and level of work in the country of employment.’ The foreign employer is required to pay the ‘visa fee of the country of destination, round trip ticket, residence and work permit fees and insurance coverage’ for the worker. Moreover, ‘any private employment agency which sends a worker abroad for work’ must deposit cash or post bond in the minimum amount of USD$30,000 for up to 500 workers ‘for the protection and enforcement of the rights of the worker.’

The real penalty for violation of the Proclamation No. 632 is suspension, revocation or cancellation of license of the employment agency. Though various stiff criminal penalties are provided in Article 40, there is little evidence of serious prosecution of human traffickers. According to a 2010 State Department report, ‘Between March and October 2009, the Federal High Court’s 11th Criminal"> bench heard 15 cases related to transnational labor trafficking, resulting in five convictions, nine acquittals, and one withdrawal due to missing witnesses. Of the five convictions, three offenders received suspended sentences of five years’ imprisonment, two co-defendants were fined, and one offender is serving a sentence of five years’ imprisonment.’

Similarly, according to a 2011 UNHCR report, ‘The [Ethiopian"> government showed only nascent signs of engaging destination country governments in an effort to improve protections for Ethiopian workers and obtain protective services for victims.’ Moreover, ‘although licensed employment agencies must place funds in escrow in the event a worker's contract is broken, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has never used these deposits to pay for victims' transportation back to Ethiopia.’ But the regime has readily come to the rescue of other victims of human traffickers according to the same UNHCR report: ‘In 2010, Ethiopia granted asylum to 1,383 Eritrean refugees deported from Egypt, many of whom claim to have been brutalized by Rashaida smugglers operating in the Sinai - including conditions of forced construction labor - or have fled Eritrea to escape situations of forced labor associated with the implementation of the country's national service program.’ While it is noble and morally commendable to assist any victim of human trafficking and human rights abuse, it is also true that charity begins at home.


The international movement of labour is a fact of international life. For a poor country such as Ethiopia where unemployment is high, workers who migrate abroad are a source of much needed financial support for their families, and a source of remittances for the country in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. But slavery, including contract slavery, is still slavery. It is just as cruel, oppressive, exploitive, dehumanising and degrading. These women are extremely vulnerable and have no rights and no means of support to vindicate their rights. Various commentators have argued that the demand for Ethiopian domestic workers will continue as they are considered cheaper and more obedient. In other words, they are considered ‘model maids’ who put up with a lot of abuse in quiet desperation.

One can point to international legal and moral obligations to help out these women and effectively combat human trafficking camouflaged as migrant labour. But discussion of legal and moral state obligations under these obligations would be an exercise in futility. Talking law or morality to those who thumb their noses at the rule of law is a waste of time.

If the problem of ‘contract slavery’ in the Ethiopian ‘maid trade’ is going to be addressed effectively, serious criminal investigations and prosecutions must be pursued against violators. The aggressive crackdown that has long been directed at the independent press in Ethiopia should be re-directed to the gangs of criminal human traffickers.

Various scholars and researchers have offered other effective recommendations to deal with the problem, including domestic skills training to Ethiopian women in an attempt to lessen their vulnerability, working with NGOs as partner organisations to monitor their working conditions and working with host countries to make it easy for these workers to use the banking institutions. Some have suggested ways of improving access to the criminal justice system of the host country by providing a confidential complaint reporting process for abuse and wage payment related issues and legal assistance; expanding victim services such as shelters and hotlines; and engaging civil society and faith-based groups to offer assistance.


Slavery was not abolished in Saudi Arabia and Yemen until 1962. A year later it was abolished in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the 1950s, Saudi Arabia had an estimated 450,000 slaves, nearly 20 percent of the population. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that ‘contract slavery’ of domestic servants continues in these countries. The deep tracks of slavery do not vanish easily in the desert sand in a mere 50 years. The vast majority of the Ethiopian domestic workers end up in these three countries. In 2009, ‘over 74,000 people risked their lives to enter Yemen en route to Saudi Arabia, of which 42,000 were Ethiopians.’ The ‘kafala’ or sponsorship system in the Gulf States gives disproportionate power to the sponsor (employer) in the ‘contract’ relationship. If the worker breaks her contract, she bears the cost of her return ticket and will likely pay fines and pay debts to the employment agency that arranged the sponsorship. There is no running away from ‘contract slavery’ particularly since the migrant worker is required to surrender her passport (if legally in the country) to the employer. Through the maids may be able to run away from their cruel employers, they cannot hide. They are frequently arrested as fugitive workers, not unlike fugitive slaves of yesteryears. Unable to change their circumstances, these women endure in quiet desperation often for years.

Slavery by any other name is still slavery. In truth, there can be no ‘contract slavery’ since only free men and free women can enter into any contracts, which leaves many of Ethiopian domestic workers as nothing but slaves and at best indentured servants. Article 4 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude, slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.’ We must all do what we can to help our Ethiopian sisters to rise up from ‘contract slavery’.


* Alemayehu G. Mariam is professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino.
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