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MIDEAST: Never a Good Day for This Population

Simba Russeau

CAIRO, Jul 11 2011 (IPS) - In dire need of money to assist her family back home, 27-year-old Makeda from Ethiopia was forced to return to the Middle East as a domestic worker.

As the world marks the Global Population Day Jul. 11, the plight of many like her is increasingly in focus.

Instead of taking the legal route, Makeda opted to seek out assistance from another Ethiopian woman who had been employed in the Middle East for more than ten years, and was known for helping women find sponsors.

Some five years later Makeda ran into difficulties when she took on work with an expat family that wanted to sponsor her. But her passport was with the female trafficker who had brought her in.

“The initial sponsorship that the trafficker brought me under had expired, and the local man who allowed us to use his name for a fee wasn’t paid, so he placed a claim with the authorities that I had run away,” Makeda told IPS.

“The woman demanded more money for me to relinquish my passport, so we sought legal counseling. A migration lawyer contacted the woman, and threatened to inform her employer. But in the end it was discovered that the woman’s employer was a well-known lawyer in the country who was helping her traffic women into the region,” Makeda said.

“It took me years to pay off the fees she charged to bring me in. Although I paid the extra money and obtained my passport, the process took so long that the expat family left and I ended up illegal.”

“For many, the simplicity of the transaction when dealing with illegal recruiters is more attractive,” Pardis Mahdavi, author of ‘Gridlock: Labour, Migration and Human Trafficking’ told IPS. “If governments could put into place a system that allows the legal channels for migration to be easier, it could limit the number of workers migrating under informal middlemen.”

Slavery, which is a system where people are treated as property and forced to work, is very much a part of today’s global economy. It rivals and in some regions eclipses the international drug trade.

There are nearly 27 million slaves worldwide, generating 1.3 billion dollars in annual profits, according to conservative estimates. Some estimates show a world slave population as high as 200 million, with the majority held under debt bondage.

Considered a new form of slavery, human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world. The United Nations (UN) estimates that nearly three million people are trafficked annually.

“Global human trafficking is fueled by the insatiable demand for unmediated access to other human beings – to their labour, their personhood, to all that makes each of us unique, and all of us generic,” Eileen Scully, author of ‘Pre-Cold War Traffic in Sex Labor’ told IPS.

“The demand in EU countries for ‘exotic women’, for example, is not merely a demand for non-local women, or for women from cultures that supposedly do not stigmatise prostitution. This demand is, rather, for ‘trafficked women’ and ‘trafficked children’, meaning individuals who have been manoeuvered into untenable, inescapable situations, where having once said yes to the general proposition, they are unable to say no to the particulars when later presented.”

The new International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention on Domestic Workers adopted in June aims to ensure that women – who constitute nearly 50 percent of the global migrant population – are treated as human beings.

“When male migrant workers come to work in construction or other service and industry sectors in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, they are protected under the labour law. Even if they don’t have full rights their work is recognised as work under the law, which is not the case for domestic workers (in the Arab region),” Simel Esim, gender specialist at the ILO’s Regional Office for the Arab States told IPS.

“Jordan and Lebanon are the only countries where ministries of labour are in charge of a significant number of the institutional responsibilities regarding migrant domestic workers,” adds Esim.

“In the case of the GCC countries the oversight of domestic workers is under the jurisdiction of the ministries of interior instead of the ministries of labour, which leaves domestic workers outside the purview of the labour law. The emphasis on domestic workers is, therefore about their recognition as workers, with equal rights to workers in other sectors.”

Lacking legal protection, domestic workers are among the most exploited and abused workers in the world. Rights advocates have long argued that exclusion from labour laws and recruitment-related abuses has left domestic workers in the Middle East vulnerable to exploitation, sexual abuse, forced labour, debt bondage, trafficking and conditions akin to slavery.

The new convention requires governments to regulate private employment agencies that impose heavy debt burdens or misinform migrant domestic workers about their jobs, prohibit the practice of deducting domestic workers’ salaries to pay recruitment fees, investigate complaints, and labour inspection in private homes.

“Policies relating to trafficking need to fall more in line with the reality of forced migration globally because most migrant workers are not the stereotypical sex worker chained to a bed,” adds Mahdavi.

“In fact they are men and women that are tied to metaphorical chains like debt and poverty that forces these workers to migrate and remain in poor working conditions.”

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