She mostly comes from a poor community. She is female which introduces a whole new dimension to her experiences in a foreign land. She’s mostly Christian, newly converted to Islam to meet the demands of her work. She’s black African. Add to that she hardly speaks a word of Arabic. She might not even speak the official language of Ethiopia. She has probably never been to Addis Ababa until she began her process for migration, which can serve as a testing ground for what to expect in the metropolis of the Arab states. This concoction and intersection of class, gender, religion and race ultimately puts her in the bottom rung of the social strata in the Middle East. She has no information and whatever bit she has does not paint the correct picture. Once she lands in the Middle East, she is at the mercy of her employers. She has no telephone access. She has neither friends nor family to call upon. She is confronted with jealous wives and sex-seeking husbands. The Ethiopian Embassy, where one may exist, is unreachable to her because she is locked up and has no means to get access to her consulate. She is the modern-day slave fighting for survival.
Remembering Alem Dechassa
There is a piercing and disturbing pain that comes with witnessing the anguish and pain of another human being gripped in the relentless embrace of suffering. There is an even sharper pain that resonates with the realization that the intersection of class, gender, religion and race plays a huge role in the source of that person’s agony. And when that person is country folk, the sorrow felt in response to their torment in foreign lands is indescribable. Not because of an inability to feel the same for anyone in a similar situation, but because of a local understanding of the circumstances that paved their tumultuous path.
That piercing, disturbing, sharp pain and sorrow is what I have felt upon watching the viral video of Alem Dechassa, an Ethiopian domestic worker in Lebanon, being dragged by her hair and physically abused by her male employer in front of her Embassy grounds. Two days after the release of this video, reports came out that Alem Dechassa had committed suicide at the psychiatric hospital she had been admitted to. She is shown fighting for survival with every inch of breath and energy left in her.
Alem’s story is one that in Ethiopia we have become all too familiar with. The rural girl or woman who is burdened with the responsibility to take care of her family or is bridled with a passion for self-development, which the reality of her small rural community cannot afford her in its humble offerings. And so the journey that requires her to shed her language, religion, culture, name, family and all that is familiar becomes much more alluring.
Is it better?
A few weeks back I find myself in a modest hair salon in the city of Bahir Dar by Lake Tana. Conversation in there is bubbling about the next wave of women making their way to the Middle East in search of better opportunities. A young woman who is friends with one of the employees in the hair salon has come in to get her hair done before her departure the next day. I ask her where she is going and she replies with caution of her flight from Addis Ababa the next evening to Saudi Arabia. I am afraid to ask her more lest my queries and my worries about the life of a domestic worker in the Middle East should come off as patronizing. Nevertheless, I proceed with one commonly asked and somewhat irrelevant question, “is it better?” It’s irrelevant because I know she has come this far with the choice in mind that indeed it was better. Yet I ask her anyways, to get her perspective on the journey ahead of her.
She is cautious in her responses but she is also fierce. There is determination in her voice projecting to her listener that this journey is one with a purpose and end time. She has processed her contract through a “legitimate” agency she shares with me. She adds that the Ethiopian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs have provided them with training on what to expect there, what their rights are, that they are not to give away their passports, and that they are within their right to change to different employers within the first three months of each contract. She assures me that the problem cases arise when processed through the illegitimate sending agencies only. She plans to return back with cash in hand in a few months time to start-up something in Bahir Dar.
If her dreams go as planned, it is better. Who am I to doubt that while sitting in my seat of privilege? Even my cousin has made a better life for herself after some short years in Bahrain in domestic servitude. That is if we do not factor in her near death experience when her employer’s mother poisoned her and the other time when her employer’s brother attempted to rape her.
But how long do we continue to “not factor in” these instances accepting them as “minor” hiccups in these women’s progress to self-development?
Race to the bottom
There is a socio-economic concept that posits that when a certain country X enforces strict regulations say on taxation or labor standards, foreign direct investment will seek another country with less stringent regulations. In essence, flexible regulations enable the “race to the bottom”. I found this theory somewhat worthy of mention upon reading a news article from earlier this month in which it is stated that Saudi Arabia alone is seeking up to 45,000 Ethiopian domestic workers per month to meet its requirements. This increase in demand is attributed to Saudi Arabia’s placement of “a ban on recruiting workers from the Philippines and Indonesia after those countries imposed stricter employment conditions.” (Read more here: Saudi Seeks 45k new Ethiopian maids per month).
This is a classic example of the Saudi Arabian government denying its responsibilities to create hospitable working conditions for migrant workers, and rather preying on countries like Ethiopia who are still in the process of strengthening their support systems for domestic workers going abroad. If in essence the Saudi government is refusing to honor better pay and living conditions for the thousands of women who flock there, would it be an overstatement to suggest that they are institutionalizing a modern form of slavery?
Whose responsibility is it anyways?
Should all fingers only be pointing to the government for a resolution? Do we as citizens not have a part to play in information sharing and raising awareness? Can we who cry out in condemnation of the many Alem stories not put our minds together and come up with a bridging solution that can reduce some of the symptoms of this problem before our girls and women leave? Can we not collaborate with the few human rights organizations working in these Middle Eastern countries to also incorporate our migrant workers in their agenda?
This is the moment when I wish for an Alem2012 viral campaign video that would generate the same fervor for action and worldwide condemnation of the Middle East track record for treatment of migrant workers.
To the governments of Middle East countries who are host to our domestic workers, I insist, our women and girls are not bottom of the rung for us!
Watch “Nightmare in Dreamland” here, a documentary on the plight of Ethiopian and other domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates.
* This article was originally published on AfricanFeminism website, on March 18, 2012, authored by Billene Seyoum. It is republished here with the permission to do so.