Why Are Thousands of Malagasy Women Being Trafficked to Abusive Jobs in the Middle East?
Annick Andriahsatovo sits at the table before our interview, cooing over her 9-month-old son, Alydioh. Andriahsatovo is 22, with a disarming smile and an easy, maternal air. She also has a nightmare story to tell. In September 2012, shortly after completing her baccalaureate degree, Andriahsatovo—who lives in a suburb of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar—received a visit from a job-placement agency recruiter. The woman assured her that she could make good money working as a domestic servant in Kuwait, and also that there would be none of the labor-abuse problems recently reported in the media.
Andriahsatovo hadn’t the faintest idea how to find Kuwait on a map, but she immediately agreed. Her parents were out of work, and there weren’t enough decent-paying jobs in Madagascar to justify even looking. On November 15, her flight took off from Ivato International Airport. “I was sad to leave my family,” she recalls. “But I had courage.”
Her problems began the moment she set foot in Kuwait City. At the office of the Kuwaiti placement agency, she was “sold” from the employer listed in her contract to a second man, a retiree with a twenty-four-room residence. He wasted no time assigning her an impossible load of chores: cleaning all the rooms, cooking the food, washing the clothes. Her workdays lasted twenty-one hours, and she ate only leftovers from the family’s meals—provided there were any. When her performance failed to satisfy her employer’s exacting standards, he would strike her.
About two months after arriving, Andriahsatovo noticed that she’d stopped menstruating. An exam revealed that she was four months pregnant. Her boss was not pleased. He upped her workload despite her declining physical condition. On April 13, she felt sharp stomach pains. Not for the first time, Andriahsatovo implored him to call a doctor. “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” he said dismissively. Desperate, she asked a Filipino neighbor to call a taxi. The next day, at the hospital, she gave birth to twins—the girl stillborn; the boy alive, but more than two months premature.
Andriahsatovo was transferred to a social hospital as she waited for her newborn son to gain strength. Two weeks later, the police paid a visit; they said that she and Alydioh could soon return to Madagascar. Instead, mother and son were reunited inside a squalid detention facility teeming with former domestic servants from the countries that make up Kuwait’s major labor suppliers: the Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal. Most had fled abusive employers and now awaited their fate—deportation for most, but for others a prison sentence.
The detention center, Andriahsatovo says, was no place for a human being, let alone a 2-week-old preemie. There weren’t enough beds for everyone inside the cramped cell, so Andriahsatovo and Alydioh slept on the floor. Food and milk were in short supply. The only water came from the toilet. Alydioh was constantly sick.
The other detainees came and went following interventions by their embassies or consulates. Madagascar, however, has no consular representation in Kuwait. As the months passed in their dark, filthy cell, Andriahsatovo was left to wonder whether Alydioh would ever experience Madagascar’s embracing sunshine.
Andriahsatovo’s nightmare, with small variations in place and time and nature, is one that has been shared by tens of thousands of young Malagasy women over the last five years. It is also a nightmare with many fathers: a corrupt and ineffectual Malagasy state, callously indifferent host countries, unscrupulous traffickers, abusive employers, and international donors blinded by protocol and their own professed ideals to the real-world consequences of their actions.
Migrant labor from Madagascar to the Middle East dates back at least to the 1990s. But in 2009, a coup d’état in Antananarivo sent the country’s economy into free fall. Foreign aid, previously 40 percent of the state budget, was slashed across the board as the African Union, the United States and other major donors condemned strongman Andry Rajoelina’s seizure of power. By 2011, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Madagascar was perhaps the most under-aided country in the world.
Rajoelina’s government responded by cutting public expenditures 47 percent between 2008 and 2010. In the water, transportation, communication and energy sectors, the cut was more than 50 percent. Environmental spending was also slashed by half. The consequences rippled through Madagascar’s economy. The World Bank estimates that the poverty rate has climbed about 10 percent since the coup, if not more. Between May and November 2009, the school dropout rate tripled. Millions found themselves out of work and on the streets, and thousands of young Malagasy women went abroad in search of work.
For some enterprising businessmen, the collapse heralded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So-called placement agencies sprang up in Antananarivo and other cities across Madagascar, promising the good life in Middle Eastern “Eldorados,” where monthly salaries usually ran around $200. The agencies would pocket upward of $2,000 for each successful transaction.
Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but few question the overall trend. Norotiana Jeannoda, the president of the Union of Qualified Domestic Workers (SPDTS), estimates that every year since 2009, about 200 people per week have left Madagascar for the Middle East. The numbers before that were “negligible,” she says. Initially, most of the women—some 90 percent of Madagascar’s migrant labor force is believed to be female—went to Lebanon. A former high-ranking official at the Malagasy Ministry of Labor, which is responsible for signing off on all legal contracts, estimates that before 2009, Malagasy workers in Lebanon numbered in the hundreds. In 2009, according to data from the Lebanese Ministry of Labor provided by the Catholic charity Caritas, that figure reached more than 4,000.
The Malagasy government banned further migration to Lebanon in November 2009 due to that country’s woeful labor-rights record. But as Madagascar’s economy spiraled downward, the number of migrants grew anyway. Some headed clandestinely to Lebanon with the collusion of government officials. Samuëlson Ramanitriniony, the director general of the labor ministry and a dissenter from the favorable stance toward migrant labor held by many of his colleagues, thinks the current number in Lebanon could be more than 10,000. Of late, however, the most popular destinations have been Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The State Department’s 2013 “Trafficking in Persons” report estimated that in the past year alone, some 3,000 female domestic workers had migrated to Kuwait from Madagascar.
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