Peanut Gallery: It’s been less than 50 years since slavery was abolished in Oman. But it’s much easier to change laws, than it is to change attitudes… as the following article illustrates.
Human trafficking is just another form of de facto slavery. The living conditions can be horrible and the treatment of servants/workers even worse… and this is in Oman who are the relative “good guys” in the Gulf region.
To their credit, they allowed this article to be published – remember that Oman is an absolute monarchy. And they are beginning to acknowledge and address this issue.
But condescending, exploitative attitudes towards non-Arab expats are hard to change. They are built into the Arab/Islamic mindset which dominates the region.
Note: 100 Omani Rials are worth 260 American Dollars.
She had arrived in Oman from a small town in a remote part of Ethiopia full of hope. Hope that she had secured a good job as a maid in a prosperous country and would be able to send money to her family back home. She believed this fortuitous break might herald some much-needed luck and that a brighter future now beckoned for her far away from the confines of her poverty-stricken African homeland.
Her lucky break was in fact being found still alive after being raped and violated by her sponsor and three of his friends and dumped like a piece of rubbish in the desert to die.
When some locals came across her, she was bleeding and barely conscious, having spentten days in the desert. Doctors said she only survived because of the unusual prolonged rainy conditions, another piece of luck.
Not having friends or family to turn to or any embassy to provide shelter, she was alone and helpless.
Without the kindness of strangers, she would have died. Even then, she was arrested and jailed for two months because her Omani sponsor had alerted police in the Interior that she was a ‘run-away’ or absconder.
Now imagine this all happening to you when you’re only 16 years old. Not a worldly-wise girl either, but a young, unsophisticated woman who has never left her small town.
“She was in a really bad state when we saw her,” says one man, who was involved in helping the girl.
“She had been thrown in the desert, thinking that she would just die.
“She has tremendous inner strength. If she hadn’t been so strong, she would have passed away in the desert.
“What happened to her was really shocking, it made us cry.”
While this is one of the more extreme cases, it is sadly not unusual. Hundreds of Ethiopian girls are arriving in Oman each month to work as maids, lured away by unscrupulous agencies who sell them the dream of a new life abroad and a salary almost ten times the amount they could earn at home, in a trade described by some as ‘legal human trafficking’.
An investigation by Y has uncovered a disturbing picture of vulnerable, young women and exploitation on a large scale, catering to a growing demand for cut-rate domestic staff across the Middle East.
Physical, emotional and sexual abuses have been reported.
The problem is so severe that the Ethiopian government has imposed a ban on its nationals working in the UAE and Lebanon after a series of complaints about serious abuse.
With stricter conditions being imposed on bringing Filipino and Indian domestic helpers to work in Oman, the demand for cheaper workers from other countries has increased.
For girls from Ethiopia, where the average salary for a maid is just RO06 (approximately $16) a month, it’s an irresistible proposition.
They can be seen in the arrivals hall at Muscat Airport, pouring off the four weekly Ethiopian Airlines flights from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, with a new, cheap-looking suitcase in their hands and a fearful look in their eyes.
“The girls are desperate to come here,” says the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Many have to go abroad to find work to help their families.
“They have to pay the middleman to come to Oman, a minimum of RO200 (approximately $520), which is a fortune to them. Sadly, most of them are really poor so they sell their possessions, their cows, goats and sheep, everything they have, to get the money.”
Many can’t speak Arabic or English, leaving them isolated and lonely. They may not even be able to communicate with other Ethiopians in Oman – there are more than 80 different dialects in the diverse expanse of the country.
On top of the culture shock, some come from such rural and poor areas, they have never seen water from a tap before. They can expect to earn a salary of between RO50-RO60 a month (approximately $130 – 160).
“Many sponsors treat the maids well, the same as they treat their own daughters, and the girls are really happy,” says the source.
“But this is not the case for all of them. Some are being abused. We hear about many rape cases, salaries not being paid, emotional abuse and some of them just go crazy here, they suffer from depression.
“Sometimes they are younger than they say. Their passports will be altered, either by them or someone else, to make them older. In some cases, they are just 12 or 13 years old.
“When something bad does happen, they don’t have a voice to speak up for them or anywhere to turn. At the very least, they need a consular office here in Oman. If they are being beaten or raped and they run away from their sponsors, they have nowhere to go.
“Some turn to prostitution. The number of Ethiopian prostitutes is increasing. I asked some why they are doing it, risking their health, and they say ‘What choice do we have?’ They want to return to their country but can’t because their sponsor or police have their passport.”
Y tried to speak to some Ethiopian maids but most are too scared to speak out, fearful of losing their jobs or worse.
In a case earlier this year, an Ethiopian maid was found wandering in Ruwi and sleeping rough after leaving her sponsor who hadn’t paid her salary for a few months.
In June last year, several Ethiopian workers were stranded at Muscat Airport after their recruiting agents failed to show up.
Private labour employment agencies back in Ethiopia arrange the flights, visas and jobs to the Middle East in what has been called ‘contract slavery’ and ‘the maid trade’ by lawyer Khaled Ali Beydoun, an American Egyptian, who has written a paper on the trafficking of Ethiopian workers into Lebanon.
In Oman, sponsors pay a fee starting from RO350 (approximately $900) to another agency for finding and supplying the maid.
Top spots for Ethiopian maids to work in are currently Oman, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. There are stories of maids being ‘sold on’ to other countries without their consent.
Another source told Y about scams operated by the middleman, sometimes in cohorts with the maids, to abuse the insurance policy taken out by sponsors to cover their fee in the first three months should the contract not work out. With the scam, the maids run away or deliberately try to get sacked soon after the three-month period has expired. The sponsor is left out of pocket, unable to claim back their fee, and has to fork out another RO350 for a new maid.
Despite the trauma she suffered, the teenage girl in our story was one of the lucky ones. She is back in Ethiopia after the expat community, fellow Ethiopians and other nationalities rallied round to help.
Her Omani medical bill of RO100,000 was paid for by the Oman government and the expat community continues to send her money, to pay for the ongoing medical treatment required. She is still unable to walk properly and cannot work. The psychological scars will no doubt take longer to heal.
The men who committed the rape and attacks have never been charged.
“It’s horrendous, something needs to be done to stop this happening again,” says one of the expats who helped out.
“This young girl came to our country and we now have a responsibility to her and all the others that came here to work too.”
Ultimately, it is up to the Ethiopian government to establish an embassy or consular office, or impose conditions to help their women workers at risk abroad.
Until then, young women will continue to be at risk.
“People need to know what is going on,” said one supporter. “Hopefully it will change. It has to change. These girls are so desperate to go to Oman but sometimes they pay a high price to come here.”
Located in the Horn of Africa
Bordered by Eritrea to the north, Djibouti and Somalia to the east, Sudan and South Sudan to the west, and Kenya to the south.
Most populous landlocked country in the world.
Population: 85 million
Capital: Addis Ababa
Official language: Amharic
Religion: Christianity and Islam
Ethiopians currently living in Oman: 20,000
Categories: Life around the World