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In-depth: Ethiopia’s digitally empowered labor migration initiative to the Gulf region sparks controversy, hope

The number of individuals participating in the government’s migrant-worker program and traveling abroad, primarily to the Middle East, has surged, reaching 100,000 in the last fiscal year. (Photo: Ministry of Labor and Skills/Facebook)

By Zelalem Takele @ZelalemTakelee

Addis Abeba – When 18-year-old Abeba Teferi (name changed) left her family’s modest home in Gondar city, located in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, she had high hopes of “earning good money” as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.

Assured by the recruitment agency that she would be treated well by a considerate employer, Abeba eagerly joined the ranks of young women who had traveled before her to seek employment in the Gulf countries and support their families back home. However, the reality she faced in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, was far more challenging than she had anticipated.

“They took advantage of the fact that I was new,” Abeba recalls.

Her boss would swiftly point out her mistakes, often using hurtful words. “From morning until night, she berated me with insults,” Abeba conveys. “I was forced to work endlessly without any breaks.”

Exploited and drained, Abeba endured months of mistreatment before being transferred to a more compassionate family in Riyadh. “My new employer is truly kind. They have embraced me as a member of their own family,” Abeba shares with relief in her voice during a phone conversation with Addis Standard.

In her new job in Riyadh, Abeba has found a supportive environment with clear responsibilities, scheduled breaks, and genuine respect. However, the emotional scars from her time in Jiddah continue to haunt her.

During moments of reflection, Abeba often thinks about the countless others who may be facing similar hardships. “I strongly encourage girls from my town to approach this journey with caution,” she advises.

Promoting the controversial labor migration initiative

Despite facing criticism, the Ethiopian government remains steadfast in its commitment to send more workers, akin to Abeba, to the Gulf region through its migrant-worker program. This initiative was launched after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries reopened their doors to domestic workers, ending a three-year hiatus prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Within a few years, the number of individuals participating in the migrant-worker program skyrocketed, reaching 100,000 in the last fiscal year. At the beginning of this year, officials, including Muferiat Kamil, Minister of Labor and Skills, declared their intent to send up to half a million individuals through the migrant-worker program.

It appears that the government is determined to follow through on its announcement. Earlier this week, Muferiat disclosed to state media that in the past four months of the current fiscal year alone, the government assisted over 120,000 people in securing jobs overseas, primarily in the Middle East.

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“The initiative is broadening job prospects for Ethiopian citizens seeking employment opportunities overseas,” she stated.

Muferiat also emphasized that the Ministry is actively working to broaden destination options, with a specific emphasis on regions including the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Simultaneously, initiatives are in progress to bolster administrative processing capacity, with the goal of accommodating up to 38,000 workers per month.

Officials praise the newly implemented migrant-worker program as a structured opportunity promoting economic mobility. At the heart of this program is the Ethiopian Labor Market Information System (E-LMIS), a digital platform designed to enhance migrant rights through direct communication between foreign employers and Ethiopian employees. The government asserts that E-LMIS will be instrumental in protecting the interests of both migrants and host countries by fostering clear communication and transparency throughout the recruitment process.

The initiative is broadening job prospects for Ethiopian citizens seeking employment opportunities overseas.”

Muferiat Kamil, Minister of Labor and Skills

Abebe Alemu, director of communication and public relations at the Ministry of Labor and Skills, explains that E-LMIS addresses the needs of both prospective migrant workers and labor-seeking destination countries. According to him, the system enables workers to register their biometric data at one of the 400 centers established across Ethiopia, leading to the issuance of a national ID.

Abebe emphasizes that this process is free for citizens and praises the system for facilitating legal migration while ensuring the dignity and security of Ethiopian workers. “The system also helps to curtail the operations of illicit recruiters,” he argues.

Etenesh Gebrselassie, a seasoned migrant labor activist with prior experience in Beirut, asserts that the Ethiopian government’s current initiative to facilitate the official sending of workers to the Middle East signifies a substantial step forward in curbing illegal and exploitative recruitment practices. She highlights the significant demand among Ethiopians for employment opportunities in the Middle East, emphasizing the importance of the government’s role in ensuring a safer and legal avenue for migration.

According to Etenesh, unlicensed recruiters have long been the primary obstacle to safer migrant labor in the Middle East. She acknowledges the difficulty in fully dismantling their exploitative networks or dissuading vulnerable citizens from pursuing job prospects in the Gulf region through unofficial means.

Abebe presents a more optimistic viewpoint, expressing the government’s hope that the new initiative, supported by the E-LMIS, will positively impact not only the workers and their families but also the national economy through remittances.

While the income sent home by these migrant workers is a lifeline for many impoverished families in Ethiopia, the program has faced strong criticism due to its failure to address long lasting dangerous working conditions and rampant mistreatment of workers abroad without accountability.

A recent report by The Globe and Mail exposed regional administrative bodies and state agencies using Facebook ads with false promises of secure jobs and incomes in Saudi Arabia to recruit Ethiopian women.

Human rights groups have also condemned the Ethiopian government for deceiving vulnerable citizens about the realities they will face. In April 2023, the organization Freedom United revealed that the Ethiopian government was coercing hundreds of thousands of women into abusive domestic work in a country notorious for exploitation.

The Bishoftu town registration center for the Ethiopian Labor Market Information System (E-LMIS) stands among the initial facilities inaugurated on a national scale (Photo: Ministry of Labor and Skills/Facebook)

In addition to Ethiopia’s labor migration initiative, concerns have been raised about the system existing in host countries, known as kafala. Banchi Yimer, founder and director of “Egna Legna,” an organization supporting Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon, points out that while Ethiopia’s labor migration initiative equipped with E-LMIS may reduce reliance on illegal traffickers, it does not address the fundamental issues posed by the pervasive kafala sponsorship system in the Gulf region.

Introduced by Middle Eastern countries in the 1950s, the kafala system is a sponsorship program in which employers import foreign laborers and bind them to a contract for a specified time period. The system arose from the growing demand in Gulf economies for cheap labor and the desperation of many migrants in search of work and the opportunity to send money home to their families.

In recent years, however, the system has become increasingly controversial, and there is growing recognition that it is rife with exploitation. Banchi explains that under kafala, employees are tied to their sponsors, granting employers extensive control over visa status and freedom of movement, thus hindering the monitoring of labor conditions.

Banchi also remains skeptical about the effectiveness of the monitoring system known as E-LMIS in environments governed by the Kafala system, citing the frequent confiscation of communication devices by employers as a severe limitation.

In contrast, Abebe insists that the monitoring system remains active even after workers have left Ethiopia. “The system is integrated with the workers’ destination countries, enabling embassies to track the location, well-being, and salary payments of migrants.”

Additionally, Abebe suggests that dissatisfied workers can lodge complaints through the app and either switch employers or return home, effectively overcoming problems posed by Kafala.

However, Banchi remains doubtful, highlighting the grim reality faced by workers due to the kafala system, where abuse, wage theft, and limited recourse are prevalent. “The Ethiopian government’s ability to protect its citizens is severely limited under kafala,” she stated.

Banchi continues her argument, stating that substantial improvements in conditions hinge upon dismantling the kafala system. In her view, more organized recruitment cannot mitigate the inherent vulnerability of a system that ties residency to employer sponsorship. Without structural reforms, Banchi remains skeptical that the initiative will significantly reduce the exploitation of migrant domestic workers.

While admitting the challenges posed by the restrictive kafala system, Etenesh argues that many Ethiopian migrant workers, particularly from rural areas, lack awareness of their basic rights and duties as domestic employees overseas.

Formalizing labor relations with host countries

In an effort to formalize labor relations and provide better protection for workers, the Ethiopian government has been actively engaged in bilateral agreements with host countries since 2002. Notably, a significant agreement was reached with Kuwait last year, announcing a monthly salary of approximately 90 dinars for Ethiopian domestic workers.

Building on this momentum, Ethiopia and Lebanon recently signed an agreement in April 2023 with the aim of regulating employment, ensuring the protection of human rights, and combating human trafficking.

The Ethiopian government’s ability to protect its citizens is severely limited under the kafala system.”

Banchi Yimer, founder and director of “Egna Legna”

Minister Muferiat recently stated that the government has forged bilateral agreements with several countries, including Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE, to facilitate well-regulated migration flows.

In line with this initiative, 94 specialized training centers have been established to provide prospective migrants with crucial skills, encompassing language proficiency, financial literacy, and vocational abilities, according to the Minister.

With the new initiative supported by specialized training centers and bilateral agreements, Etenesh contends there is real potential for citizens to pursue foreign employment opportunities through duly regulated legal avenues, reducing reliance on illegal recruitment.

Etenesh also commends the Ethiopian government for implementing practical pre-departure guidelines, providing essential training for domestic workers, and formalizing international labor relations through progressive bilateral agreements aimed at upholding worker rights.

However, reservations about the bilateral agreements’ ability to safeguard migrant domestic workers have been expressed by human rights advocates. Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, points out that the bilateral deal lacks a minimum salary provision for domestic employees in countries like Lebanon. “This forces domestic employees to rely on existing laws that are notably weak and often exclude domestic workers.”

Similar concerns are echoed by Banchi, who notes that without clearly defined wage standards, the compensation of migrant workers will be left largely to the discretion of the problematic kafala sponsorship system, heightening their vulnerability.

“With Lebanon facing an economic crisis since the 2019 Beirut explosion, even local citizens are grappling with pronounced financial uncertainty,” Banchi explains. “The addition of more Ethiopian workers under such precarious conditions may further exacerbate their difficulties.”

Given the dominant role of the kafala system in most host countries, Banchi also questions the effectiveness of bilateral agreements when it comes to safeguarding the interests of migrant workers. “Domestic workers often fall outside the purview of both the host nation and Ethiopian official oversight, potentially leaving them without the necessary regulatory framework and supervision.”

To strengthen protections for migrant workers vulnerable to mistreatment abroad, Etenesh suggests drawing insights from the accomplishments of progressive bilateral labor agreements embraced by Asian nations.

Abebe disclosed that diversifying the destinations for Ethiopian domestic workers and improving their salaries are among the government’s initiatives. “With the evolving global economic landscape in mind, these adjustments are seen as critical.”

However, Abebe indicated that such changes require mutual consent between the sending and hosting nations, suggesting that reaching a consensus may require time and negotiation. AS

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