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A ‘slave’ in Arabia – The story of a Ghanaian returnee

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has often been heavily criticized for its maltreatment of foreign workers, and the abuses that some receive at the hands of employers.

The Ghanaian Embassy in Saudi Arabia, in May this year, cautioned Ghanaian youth living in Ghana, especially ladies who have made plans of traveling to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states for so-called greener pastures to be extremely mindful of the unfavorable working conditions for foreign unskilled workers such as house maids and other laborers.

The embassy described as regrettable the wave at which both Ghanaian agents and their foreign counterparts mislead prospective Ghanaian workers by promising them non-existent juicy offers which turn out to be a hell for most of these workers, noting that “ it was  overwhelmed with cases of Ghanaian domestic workers (house maids) who have fallen victim  to deceits by unscrupulous agents both in Saudi Arabia and Ghana.

According to the 2015 International Migration Report, Saudi Arabia hosted 10 million migrants.  The 2016 Gobal Detention Project, quoting a Middle-East online advocacy forum; Migrant-Rigths.org, said a stunning 99.6 percent of all domestic workers and personal assistants in the Kingdom were foreigners, with majority of them  undocumented.  Like other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia’s labour migration policy is based on an old traditional sponsorship scheme known as the ‘Kafala’ system, where a worker can only enter the country and work through a sponsor known as a ‘Kafeel’. These workers are mostly linked to the sponsors through agencies both in Saudi and lower income countries where the workers are recruited from.

Per this scheme, the sponsor through their local agents fund the travel of  young migrants who are mostly lured with unrealistic lucrative promises.  The scheme ties a worker’s status in the Saudi to a specific sponsor, whose written consent is required before the worker can change jobs or leave the country.   A foreign worker cannot change his or her sponsor or job unless a rare release from the sponsor is issued, along with a new sponsorship form from a new employer.  The ‘kafala’ sponsorship scheme has been described by human right watchers as a form of modern-day slavery due to the immense power given to employers.

In 2015, a young Ghanaian lady, Zara , 25, through a local recruitment  agency  in  Tema, left behind  her minor  catering business with the hope of making it ‘big’ in Saudi Arabia. However, like many ladies referred to by the Ghanaian Embassy in Saudi Arabia, that decision was the worst she made.  Luckily for her, she is now back in Ghana and ready to share her experiences in a bid to discourage other young ladies who may want to travel to the   gulf countries for ‘greener pastures’ that never exist.

“I left Accra with other girls on the 6th of December, 2015. What made me to embark on the Saudi trip was that I ran into a debt with my waakye business. I had a debt I needed to repay. So as a frustrated young lady, I was hopeful I could raise the money there. The agent said we will  be well paid if we work hard in Saudi, that motivated me but that was not the story,’’ she narrated gloomily, pointing to a page in her passport.

According to her,  they  left Accra on  for Saudi Arabia through Egypt where she met  other  Ghanaian ladies who were also on transit to Saudi Arabia.

“There were a lot of girls on the flight so we were chatting on board from Egypt till we got to Saudi Arabia. When we got to Saudi, our passports were taken at the Airport and kept in a room. That is where our woes commenced’’

“ In Saudi, we joined other ladies  from Ethiopia, India, Philippines, and Bangladesh. We were parked in a small room.  We did not know whom our bosses (sponsors) were, but  we were told they knew us  because they applied for our visas. After long hours, we  were distributed across the country like parcels,” she continued.

Deceits, maltreatments & disappointments

Before leaving Ghana, Zara said she was promised a cedi equivalent of  GHC 2,000  monthly salary but upon arrival,  this turned-out to be false as she was only given GHC 800 a month  for working like a “slave.”

“Parts of the salary was being paid to the Ghanaian agent whom I could not reach over there. My expectations were dashed completely due to the treatment meted out to me.  I was made to do the chores of about ten people in a big flat with several rooms. ”

She noted that though she was informed that she will be working in one particular house, there were times where she was taken to work in the homes of  the parents of her sponsor.

“Communication was a challenge because I could not speak Arabic. My Sponsor’s wife was very abusive. You are not allowed to eat, it was just work and nothing else.  I can say the place was no different from hell. I had wanted to escape due to the kind of treatment I was going through, but the challenge was with my passport which was not with me. So I had no option than to endure the hardship,” Zara narrated.

“There is no domestic worker  in Saudi Arabia who is safe per my observation. What I personally went through there it was not easy at all. Things are really difficult out there in Saudi. I don’t just want to see anybody experience the heartless treatment I was going through.”

After spending close to two years under inhumane treatment, Zara , now drained and skinny, was released by her employers  with the aid of some concocted stories.  Like many other young girls from lower and middle-income countries in  Africa and Asia,  Zara was  lied to, promised heaven only to have  her  expectations dashed.

Back in Ghana, she is sharing her experience with the aim of dissuading other young women who may be tempting to travel to the GCC.

In  July this  year, Ghana’s  Minister of Foreign Affairs Minister,  Shirley Ayorkor Botchway, in an  interview with an Accra-based radio station, Citi FM,  disclosed  that about  800 Ghanaian migrants living in Saudi Arabia  have turned themselves in at Ghana’s mission there to be reunited with their families back home.  This came on the heels of  Saudi Arabia’s  90-day amnesty for persons living in that country to return to their countries of origin as part of the Kingdom’s “A Nation Without Illegal Expatriates” initiative.

Regardless, Zara says other girls were  still secretly arriving in the region and therefore called on Ghanaian authorities to act swiftly.

“Before I left Saudi Arabia this year, the agent brought in other Ghanaian girls upon the request from my boss. I still talk to some of the ladies I went with.  I can confidently say those  girls are in hell,’’ she said.

With the help of Non-governmental Organization (NGO), Youth ICONS, Zara is embarking on a campaign aimed at dissuading young Ghanaians not to fall prey to this scam.

“She will be telling the youth not to repeat the mistakes she made. We are happy she is not being selfish.” said Nana Osei-Darkwa, the founding President of the NGO.

“Youth ICONS is going to ensure that she is properly set up and advice her colleague young girls especially up north where these agents normally go and traffic them outside”, he noted.

There were no responses when the Ghana Immigration Service was contacted on the claims by Zara on the phenomenon. The Public relations officer of the service was not available for comments.

By: Attah-Effah Badu/Daily Express