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Ethiopia maid video underscores Middle East abuse

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Screen grab shows the Ethiopian maid who survived a fall from a building in Kuwait. Screen grab/YouTube

A video of an Ethiopian maid falling several stories, which was allegedly filmed by her employer in Kuwait, has reignited debate about the working conditions of migrant workers, not least African, in the Middle East. Kuwaiti police have arrested the maid's employer, accusing her of failing to help the maid, but this hasn't stemmed criticism.


The video of the woman dangling from the balcony of her employer's flat went viral last week.

In it, the maid can be heard screaming "hold me, hold me", just before her hand slips and she falls several floors.

There is no reaction from the person filming, to the maid’s cries.

Shocking as it may sound, Aida Awel, the Chief Technical Adviser on Labour Migration for the ILO Country Office in Ethiopia, says this sort of practice is not new.

"This happens a lot in Gulf countries. There are a lot of migrants who basically lose their lives whether it's through falling off a building or other means, which is not usually the natural cause of death," she told RFI by phone on Monday.

Initially reported as having attempted to commit suicide, the Ethiopian maid said in another video released on Sunday she'd been trying to escape her Kuwaiti employer, because the latter was trying to kill her.

Migrant domestic workers, many of whom come from Ethiopia, are incredibly vulnerable to their employers partly because of a system of sponsorship known as kafala.

One death per week

"To work in the Middle East, migrant domestic workers need a sponsor," explains Awel. "They can't do anything without the kafala. So they end up becoming his or her property. If you look at the case of Lebanon, there's been one death per week of migrants of all nationalities. So this unfortunately has become a common practice."

One of the main challenges for these low-skilled workers is lack of awareness, they don't always go prepared says Pedro De Vasconcelos, a senior technical specialist at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

"Many people leave thinking that initially they'll be gone for a couple of years. In many cases, after 8, 10 or 15 years, they realize that something went wrong, that they''ve been here, they've created a need... Now they're sending money not just to support their daughters or sons, but their grandsons."

Turning the tide

In 2013, the Ethiopian government, which couldn't be reached before publication, did ban migrant workers from seeking work in the Middle East as domestic help to precisely try and prevent these persistent abuses.

Workers must now have training and be skilled before leaving.

Regardless, illegal immigration continues to thrive.

"The issues that are pushing them to leave are not being addressed," Mabel Kirabo from the Strategic Inititiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), in Uganda, told RFI.

"Early marriages are a big issue that women are running away from, as well as high levels of poverty."

Even if some women do manage to return home, many end up going right back.

"We interviewed women who told us that they had to leave to look for money to support their families. There are a lot of expectations riding on them. They're thinking that they have to go back, they don't have any other option," insists Kirabo.

Making most of remittance

The money they do send back home overshadows by far any other source of aid that exists today, reckons Pedro De Vasconcelos of IFAD.

"It's three times the amount of Overseas Development Aid to developing countries. If we can help migrants make better use of this money, for instance in investment opportunities rather than just consumption, it could create better conditions for the family that is receiving those funds, and you're starting slowly to address the need to migrate."

"At the end of the day the girl has the right to make her own decisions, but I think she needs to be fully informed," reckons Kirabo.

Spreading awareness

Awareness is still lacking. "There are agencies in some GCC countries that do support these women but they don't have this information," regrets Kirabo.

Aida Awel who helps Ethiopian and Somali domestic migrant workers in the GCC States says she was shocked that so few knew they had access to safety nets on the ground.

"Ethiopian authorities have opened a number of embassies in the Middle East to protect their migrants and in 2016 they adapted a proclamation which makes skills training mandatory, to improve communication between employers and their employees."

Experts argue that governments still need to do more to provide migrants with options at home.

"I know at times girls are pressed between a rock and a hard place but they need to weigh up all the options to ensure they have all the relevant information," and says Kirabo, to avoid more videos like that of the Ethiopian maid.