The government lifted a travel ban on domestic workers seeking employment to Middle Eastern countries. The 2013 ban cited incidences of injuries, exploitation and illegal migration as reasons for the action. In lifting the ban, the government imposed new rules that require workers to undergo training and medical checkups, procedures for employment agencies and established labour attachés at its embassies. BERHANE HAILEMARIAM, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.
Following a dispute with her employer in Beirut, Lebanon, a 27-year-old domestic worker from the Gurage zone was pushed out the window of a high-rise apartment.
She suffered a leg injury from the fall and has since returned to Ethiopia.
The woman, who remains in trauma following the incident, does not want to talk to anybody, about the incident.
“She does not want to recall it again,” says Seada Hussen, a clinical nurse and counselor at Agar Charitable Society, one of the organisations that provide support for victims of human trafficking in Addis Abeba.
The organization has other rehabilitation centres, including a second one in Addis Abeba exclusively designated for men, and a similar one for women in Bahir Dar.
Agar is a non-governmental organization established in 2005 by Nina Tesfamariam with the goal of helping the elderly, as well as female victims of human trafficking in Ethiopia.
It provides support for survivors of violence and the mentally ill by providing shelter, food, health care services and counseling. It also arranges treatment and referrals for its patients to various governmental hospitals, including St. Amanuel Mental Specialized Hospital, a facility that specialises in mental health.
The domestic worker with the injured leg came to the rehab centre three months ago from Arada district where she was picked at a trash dump.
“I don’t want to repeat what I have told other media organisations before,” she said, waddling around on crutches. “Not one of them did anything to help me.”
Agar accommodates up to 100 residents and offers treatment and professional skills training.
“Currently, there are 29 women and six children, ranging from 16 to 38 years of age, including victims of rape and physical violence and patients with mental disorders,” said Seada.
Another 25-year-old resident of the facility lived with her father and brother in Addis Abeba before traveling to Beirut seeking employment.
She left Ethiopia legally in 2010 after processing her documents through the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs and completing the required short-term housekeeping course arranged by the Ministry.
“I paid more than 1,000 Br to obtain my passport, for medical examinations and other formalities,” she said. “The airfare and visa expenses were covered by my employer.”
She returned home after a three-year stint in Beirut and then went back in 2016, this time illegally. Unfortunately, Hirut was raped by her new employer and became pregnant.
She is now the mother of an 18-month-old daughter born in Beirut, where she gave birth to the child through the assistance of a charity organisation.
The Beirut charity organisation coordinated with Agar to have her transferred to Addis Abeba and helped her enter the program.
“I’m ashamed to go home to my father and brother with my daughter,” she said. “I am waiting to be trained in a skill and to start my own business.”
She plans to reunite with her family after she finishes her training and starts the business.
This is not a story of only these two ladies. Many Ethiopians have suffered physical and psychological injuries after traveling overseas for employment.
“We have treated many people with similar stories as them,” says Kumneger Adissu, training program manager at Agar. “Many came here with physical and psychological injuries.”
Mentioning these injuries, the government banned the legal travel of job seekers to Middle Eastern countries in 2013.
Out of three million Ethiopian migrants in different parts of the world, approximately 17pc are reported to reside in Saudi Arabia, a popular overseas employment destination.
During the ban, the government announced that the ban was put into effect to control illegal migration and stop the exploitation of citizens by employers and agents in overseas countries.
However, the government reconsidered resuming the programme due to an increase in the flow of illegal migrants who use business and tourist visas, according to Assefa Yirgalem, communications director at the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs.
“The number of illegal migrants has reached as much as 1,300 people a day,” said Assefa. “Therefore, we immediately started preparation to lift the ban,” said Assefa.
Over time, a new proclamation was devised, new agencies were established and labour attachés in embassies abroad were assigned to oversee the safety and security of employees.
The new proclamation directs job seekers to complete at least eighth grade and be at least 18 years of age.
Bilateral labour agreements between Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan were signed to formalise the employment exchange.
The Ministry also picked 460 Technical & Vocational, Educational & Training Centres to train job seekers; 69 hospitals to provide medical checkups, and 146 agencies to facilitate the process, according to Assefa Yirgalem, communications director at the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs.
After these changes, the Ministry lifted the five-year ban at the end of September with the approval of Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen.
As a requirement, the travelers must complete a three-month training on housekeeping, communication, personal health, household equipment usage, and food and beverage handling at the technical schools.
Those who have passed an exam after the training will receive a certification of competence, which will make them eligible to process their visa.
So far General Winget, a technical and vocational school in Addis Abeba, trained 53 female employees between April and mid-July of this year. By the end of October, the trainees had passed the competency exams and received their certifications.
Currently, over 1,000 job seekers have finished training programmes in different parts of the country, and over 6,000 are currently in training.
But none of them have yet traveled to any of the three countries.
“Legal travel to the three countries has not yet started since negotiations related to salaries are still underway,” said Assefa. “Salaries paid to Ethiopian workers are very low compared to other African countries.”
The Ministry also states that the number of registered employees are below the expected number, according to Assefa.
Labour agencies are also greatly anticipating an increase in business. Optimism has led many agents to open new offices, but they are now paying rents without earning revenue.
Mohammed Yimer, manager of Yehayem Foreign Employment Agency Plc, which is located inside Kelifa building, near Ras Habte Giorgis Bridge, is one of them.
He opened his office after fulfilling all 12 criteria set by the Ministry for registration. He has deposited an equivalent amount of 100,000 dollars in Birr in a blocked account and opened an office with a minimum of 46Sqm area, which can accommodate six staff members.
“I have been paying office rent of 13,000 Br a month for eight months without doing any business,” he told Fortune.
Agencies like Mohammed’s are supposed to establish their representative counterpart agents in the respective countries where the bilateral agreements have been signed.
It was made to create networking between the ministry, the local employment agency offices, the counterpart agencies in the respective countries, and the labour attachés assigned at the embassies.
Even though the new proclamation was devised to create a legal framework for the movement of job seekers, there are loopholes that deter its smooth implementation, according to the agencies.
The rights and obligations of the agents, employers and employees are not explicitly stipulated in the proclamation, according to Seid Ahmed, owner and manager of Alfejir Foreign Employment Agency SC and vice chairperson of Foreign Employment Agents Association.
As an example, he cites a case where employees demanded to return home after a short stay at their workplace for no legitimate reason. The employer spent more than 2,000 dollars to cover the cost of their transport fees, insurance coverage, agent services and other expenses.
The employer, under these circumstances, will ask for compensation from the agencies.
“Our association has recommended that families of the employees contribute pay compensation in such circumstances,” he said, “because this makes workers feel responsible and discourages them from returning home for no apparent reason.”
Under current conditions, job seekers only pay for their passport, medical check-up and police formalities, which generally amounts to 1,000 Br, unlike the previous time, where they have been paying over 10,000 Br to agencies.
While all these issues are pending ahead of sending locals to one of the three countries, illegal entry using tourist and commercial visas to Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Beirut and Oman has increased dramatically, according to Assefa.
To mitigate this illegal flow of job seekers, Deputy Prime Minister Demeke is leading a newly-established national council for the prevention of illegal human trafficking.
He also issued a circular ordering the Federal Police, Attorney General, Immigration & Nationality Affairs Main Department, Civil Aviation Authority and Ethiopian Airlines to curtail and control illegal travel out of the country by job seekers.
Following this, those who are traveling to Middle Eastern countries are being stopped at the airport by security staff. The Immigration Office is also asking to see invitation letters and tickets as evidence of their travel to issue and renew passports.
The Office is also demanding that passport applicants – who wish to travel for overseas employment – be over 21 years old, have completed eighth grade and bring their certificates of competence.
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