Why Are Thousands of Malagasy Women Being Trafficked to Abusive Jobs in the Middle East?
The US embassy in Madagascar was acutely aware of the crippling consequences that an AGOA suspension would have. In an unsigned cable to the secretary of state and the Commerce Department on April 3, 2009, the embassy cautioned that there could be “no question that [it] would greatly exacerbate an already delicate political and economic situation in a country that is an AGOA showcase by creating huge additional numbers of hungry and unemployed persons.” The cable also warned: “No amount of public diplomacy would succeed in explaining why our concerns for democracy here outweighed consideration for the well-being of hundreds of thousands of poor Malagasy citizens.”
But the US trade representative to Africa had already started informing exporters that Madagascar’s eligibility could be revoked by the end of the year. The warnings, combined with the ongoing political instability, led some companies to begin laying off workers. By November, production and workforce levels at AGOA factories had fallen by 15 to 20 percent, according to a cable by the US ambassador, R. Niels Marquardt.
Factory owners furiously lobbied the US government for a stay of execution. On his blog Aid Watch, New York University economics professor William Easterly excoriated the rank hypocrisy of the impending suspension. “We can be fairly sure that if Madagascar were pumping oil instead of just looking for it the country’s AGOA status would not even be under consideration,” he wrote with his colleague, Laura Freschi.
Nonetheless, on December 31, 2009, President Obama heeded recommendations from the State Department and suspended Madagascar’s AGOA eligibility. In February, layoffs began en masse. Suresh Sakhrani, the managing director of MKLEN International, which exported pants to American retailers, was forced to let go all 4,500 of his workers. In all, anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 jobs were lost.
The result, as the April 2009 cable predicted, was thousands of hungry and unemployed young women on the streets. Some turned to begging, others to prostitution. For still others, the Middle East beckoned.
It is impossible to say exactly how many former employees of AGOA factories ended up in the Middle East. Anecdotal evidence suggests the number was substantial. Local media reports in 2009 and 2010 noted a surge in migration by laid-off workers to the Middle East and closer destinations like Mauritius.
“Based on the studies of the cases we did, we noticed that most of the young women are former employees of the zones franches,” says Jeannoda, though she notes that a good part of the migration preceded the layoffs triggered by AGOA’s suspension.
Ramanitriniony is most troubled by the way AGOA essentially chewed up and then spit out masses of undereducated young women who left the countryside to work in factories. Now they refuse to go back to their ancestral villages. Jobs in the Middle East, he says, are viewed as a “godsend.”
The loss of AGOA hurt more than just newcomers. Rina Tatamo had spent two three-year stints in Lebanon between 2003 and 2010—the first without problems, the second full of them—before returning to Madagascar in 2010. She had her first child in November 2011 and searched for a job in the downsized zones franches, where she had worked in a textile factory a decade earlier. But with thirty women often competing for two positions, her efforts came to naught. Out of options, she left Madagascar again in September 2012, this time for Kuwait.
Solange Razafindrasoa had also worked before in a zone franche factory. After the birth of her second child in March 2010, she and her husband, Maurice Pierre Herynirina, realized that his salary as a security guard would no longer suffice. She sought work in a textile factory, but her efforts were also in vain. In March 2013, she left for Saudi Arabia to work as a maid.
In December, I met Herynirina in an Antananarivo cafe. He had been frantically trying to get his wife repatriated ever since learning that she hadn’t been paid in five months and reported that she had been threatened with death by her boss. He contacted Madagascar’s chargé d’affaires in Riyadh, who, Herynirina says, promised to do everything possible. Then, in December, the chargé informed him that the only way to release his wife from her contract would be to pay more than $3,000.
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