World News / Middle East

Saudi-Yemen Barrier Blocks Ethiopian Migrants

Ethiopia migrant workers seeking jobs in Saudi Arabia are being turned back on March 16, 2012, in Haradh, a town in western Yemen near the site where the Saudi government is erecting a fence along the border. (Reuters)
Ethiopia migrant workers seeking jobs in Saudi Arabia are being turned back on March 16, 2012, in Haradh, a town in western Yemen near the site where the Saudi government is erecting a fence along the border. (Reuters)
David Arnold
A popular path for Ethiopians to work as illegal household help in Saudi Arabia has been blocked by construction of a 75 kilometer-long three meter-high concrete-filled pipeline, that is supposed to eventually span the entire 1,800 kilometer Saudi-Yemen border. 
 
The Saudi-Yemen Barrier is designed to discourage illegal entry by Yemenis and other foreigners from sneaking across the border for work, to stop smugglers bringing in weapons for extremists and to end the shipment of qat – a plant whose leaves are a mild but illegal stimulant – to eager Saudi consumers.
 
Early construction has already cut off the route taken by thousands of poor Ethiopians seeking household jobs in Saudi Arabia’s wealthy middle class.
 
According to International Office for Migration (IOM) officials in Sana’a, 25,000 Ethiopians hoping for jobs as maids, cooks, nannies, gardeners and drivers in Saudi cities have been stopped at the barrier and now live in scattered temporary encampments not far from the fence.
 
IOM operates an emergency center there that provides water, food and medical help daily to about 3,500 of the most needy, said Marco Chimenton of the IOM office in Sana’a. The IOM has also repatriated thousands of Ethiopians from Yemen but has faced problems funding the flights in recent years. 
 
Foreigners do Saudi menial labor

Saudi officials estimate that a million jobs in the Kingdom are filled by foreign workers.  Most are filling low-paying positions. “Anyone doing any sort of menial labor is basically a foreigner,” said Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch in Amman.
 
Traditionally, the largest percentage of domestic workers – about 60,000 - in Saudi Arabia come from the Philippines, said Dr. Ahmed F. Al Fahaid, the Ministry of Labor’s deputy for international affairs. In protest of Saudi working conditions, the Republic of the Philippines last year banned their domestic workers from further entry to the Kingdom until a bi-lateral agreement was reached. Ethiopians began competing in earnest for those Saudi jobs.
 
The Philippine Overseas Labor Office has since negotiated a Saudi agreement to, among other things, guarantee $400 monthly wages and the freedom to change jobs. They signed their new agreement with the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in May.
 
Ethiopians bound for the homes in the Kingdom
 
Work conditions in Saudi Arabia for migrant domestic laborers - and particularly for housemaids - have long been criticized by Human Rights Watch and other watchdog agencies that cite unsafe housing, nonpayment of workers, rape and other physical abuse.
 
Al Fahaid said the Ministry of Labor completed a set of regulations in July that for the first time addresses conditions and protections for the Kingdom’s 1 million foreign domestic workers.
 
Recent local Saudi media accounts have focused on Ethiopian housemaids as perpetrators of violence. In July, a Jeddah police spokesman said many accusations against Ethiopians have “turned out to be inconsequential” but anxious Saudi mothers have engaged in an anti-Ethiopian housemaid campaign on Twitter.
 
About 200 Ethiopians who ran away from their places of employment were being treated for psychological problems in a Riyadh center for housemaids, according to the Saudi Gazette.
 
“We had some problems, especially with the Ethiopians, and decided to temporarily stop and review the case,” said Al Fahaid.  “We found out through a consultant … that most problems started long before the workers came here – especially domestic workers.”
 
Foreign workers who try to change employers are in violation of Saudi law and subject to deportation because they violate kafala – the Saudi custom of sponsorship that denies a foreign worker the right to change jobs without the employers consent. Some labor advocates have compared the system to slavery. Bahrain has outlawed it.
 
40,000 visa applications suspended

With all the bad publicity, Ethiopia recently suspended applications for an estimated 40,000 Ethiopians who want to work in the Kingdom.
 
“The decision was made on the basis of widespread reports that the Saudi authorities were complaining about domestic workers turning against their employers,” said Getachew Reda, spokesman for Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
 
He said the decision to suspend new visas is not related to Riyadh’s intentions to deport thousands of other Ethiopians who had entered the Kingdom illegally. Getachew said his government is focused on better work conditions for those who enter Saudi Arabia legally.
 
For more than a year Ethiopia has been negotiating with Saudi labor officials for an agreement similar to the Philippine agreement. Getachew said his government wants to change the system for Ethiopians who work there.
 
“Private employers consider these employees their property,” Getachew said, “and they take away their passports and make sure they have no means to challenge any unacceptable conditions. That kind of abuse happens very much.”
 
Recruiters are unregulated middlemen
 
Migrant workers from Ethiopian and other countries are often victims of a poorly functioning and sometimes corrupt system of recruiters, say observers of the Saudi foreign worker system. Recruiters are the crucial intermediaries between the housemaid and her employer, but neither government controls the recruiting or training process.  Recently city officials in Addis Ababa met with overseas job recruiters and announced the creation of seven centers to train potential foreign workers in basic home management skills.
 
The Philippines screens Saudi and Filipino recruiters of their domestic workers. Ethiopia’s Getachew says recruiting agencies are part of the problem in Ethiopia. The recruiting system has received some criticism from Ethiopian labor advocates.
 
“We’re cracking down on the so-called agencies which are concocting all kinds of stories about all kinds of opportunities in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Middle East,” said Getachew.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs