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Malagasy domestic workers: from slavery to exploitation and further emancipation?

The life histories of slave descendants in Madagascar help us understand how legacies of slavery contribute to contemporary patterns of exploitation. They illuminate ongoing and everyday struggles against socio-economic subordination.

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Photo by Alice Bellagamba. All rights reserved.

The social and political stigmas associated with slavery did not end with legal abolition. In the highlands of Madagascar, as in many other places, the history of slavery continues to cast a long shadow, with the legacies of historical slave systems creating a fertile environment for contemporary forms of labour exploitation and continuing discrimination.

While the legal abolition of slavery in Madagascar in 1896 opened up important opportunities for some former slaves, the burdens of enslavement have often proved hard to escape. In many regions of the island, statutory distinctions divide the population into nobles, common people, and slave descendants. Marriage between people belonging to different statutory groups is forbidden, and slave descendants are considered inferior and have had difficulties being recognised as landowners. In some cases, they work as sharecroppers for former masters and their economic conditions are more fragile than those of high rank lineages. The local word for 'slave' (andevo) is considered an insult, and it is still used in private conversations by people of free origin to refer to slave descendants, who in turn often try to hide their servile origin.

This does not mean, however, that we should presume that there is a seamless and unbroken continuity between past and present. Some slave descendants have enriched themselves thanks to political and economic opportunities in both the colonial and post colonial periods. Some families of noble origin now struggle to make ends meet. However, when we look at broader social patterns we find that there are large numbers of slave descendants who fill the ranks of labourers ready to accept, at home and abroad, the most degrading and precarious working conditions.

Campaigners who talk about ‘modern’ slavery generally have little time for the history of slavery.

These conditions are sometimes described in terms of ‘modern’ slavery, but this type of language can sometimes end up obscuring more than it reveals. Campaigners who talk about ‘modern’ slavery generally have little time for the history of slavery, so specific connections and vulnerabilities tend to get lost in a political language and cause which seeks to group together many different issues, problems, and practices. In order to better understand the issues involved here, we need to look more closely at specific histories and experiences. To this end, I will tell the life and family histories of two young Malagasy women of slave origin who tried to escape their legacies of slavery through migration for work.

Working as a domestic abroad: a path towards emancipation…?

Domestic work carries with it a high risk of severe exploitation. Since the end of the 1990s, Madagascar has become a major reserve of young domestic workers for Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Mauritius. Hundreds of young women, normally between 18 and 25 years old and from a number of different backgrounds, have been enrolled by formal and informal recruitment agencies. Once employed, however, some of them have had their passports confiscated, experienced sexual abuse and violence, or been denied free time and confined to the house.

However, the interest of the government and the media in the working conditions of Malagasy women abroad has been regarded by many domestic workers as a mixed blessing. Since it tends to divert attention away from the conditions experienced by young domestics in Madagascar, where pay is much lower and the forms of violence and exploitation not so different. Furthermore, many domestics have been suspicious that the efforts of campaigners to highlight the risks they face serve only to limit their freedom of movement.

Fanja, for example, was a young Malagasy woman from a little village who was recruited by an informal agency in 2010 to work as a domestic in Lebanon for a monthly salary of $150. She accepted this offer because her family urgently needed money for a court case over the ownership of a piece of land. For several years she stayed in Lebanon with a family that treated her well. “They treated me as their own daughter”, she said. “I was very lucky, considering what I discovered about other Malagasy girls in Lebanon”. Then she came back to Madagascar and left once again for Saudi Arabia, where she found herself in a very different situation: “I was obliged to work every day from 5 a.m. to midnight. The master tried on different occasions to have sex with me and he only stopped when I told his wife. I was paid half of what they promised me at the beginning, was not allowed to go outside the house, and his wife beat me with a cane every time I tried to protest”.

She left the job after six months. But despite what she experienced in Saudi Arabia, Fanja never used the word ‘slave’ to describe her condition, since she found the term highly stigmatising. On the contrary, she said that the experience had solidified her sense of independence and added that what she suffered was in some ways worth it, since the money she earned allowed her family to win their court case.

I later discovered the symbolic and economic importance of the family land and, consequently, of Fanja's individual efforts. Fanja's great-grandfather was a freed slave who received it from his former master as a form of 'compensation' after the abolition of slavery in 1896. Fanja's family has lived off its yield ever since. In 2007, one of the master's descendants tried to regain possession of Fanja's family land. He claimed that what was transferred was not the full-ownership of the land, but only the right to use it. Thanks to Fanja's money, her family was able to pay a lawyer and gain recognition as the legitimate owners. Fanja’s experiences abroad were the consequence of the vulnerability that slave descendants still experience in their everyday lives; they were also a means to consolidate the path of emancipation from slavery that her great-grandfather had opened up more than a century ago.

…or a trap that reproduces exploitation?

The ambiguous links between the past of slavery and the present of labour exploitation are evident in the life history of another young woman of slave origin I met. Mirana, as I shall call her, was born in 1982 and she has helped her mother wash clothes since she was a child. Contrary to Fanja, Mirana’s family could not claim any land rights since her grandparents were sharecroppers. Mirana got pregnant at 15, but the father, a young man from a family of noble origin, refused to recognise the child and was forbidden by his family from continuing the relationship. The stigma attached to her slave origin combined with her precarious economic condition to create an insurmountable barrier for her to climb.

Mirana went looking for a job in Madagascar’s capital city in 2010. Employment as a domestic promised much better working conditions and pay than she and her mother had received as washerwomen. A recruitment agency soon offered her a job in Mauritius, which she accepted, leaving her son with her mother. Upon arrival, she and a group of other Malagasy girls were brought to work in a hotel, their passports were confiscated, and they were forced into prostitution by the hotel owner: “The hotel director put our photos on the wall, so that the customers, who were mainly old French men, could choose which girl to spend the night with”. Mirana and the other girls were raped and beaten by the owner, were forbidden to go outside alone, and their first salaries were stolen. When one of the girls tried to escape, she was beaten up and immediately sent back to Madagascar, where she died a month later.

“This is what can happen if you are a woman from a family without land in Madagascar”.

Despite the abuse she faced, Mirana was paid $150 a month and was able to save up approximately $2000 in two years. At this point, her ‘contract’ expired and she was obliged to leave Mauritius. Once home, she reported all that had happened to the authorities, but it was too late to find the directors of the ‘recruitment’ agency. When I met her, she had bought a piece of land using the money she made and was working as a petty trader of chickens between the city and the countryside. “I felt like a slave in Mauritius”, she explained. But this condition, far from being out of step with her life, represented instead a continuation of the exploitation that started before her travel to Mauritius. “This is what can happen if you are a woman from a family without land in Madagascar”, she said. “In one way or another, I have always been considered exploitable and inferior by those who gave me money to wash their clothes. That is why I don't want to work for someone else anymore. I don't want pity. I want justice. I want respect”.

History casts a long shadow in Madagascar

The life histories of slave descendants in Madagascar are crucial sources for understanding the overlap between contemporary dynamics of exploitation and the legacies of historical slave systems. These histories not only shed light on how the past continues to structure present forms of social and economical marginality. They also demonstrate how people are trying to pursue their own emancipatory projects despite the prejudices and the economic vulnerabilities that they have experienced in their everyday life from birth. Furthermore, they remind us that the fight for economic and political emancipation, social justice, and human dignity is something more than a struggle over definitions of what is (or is not) slavery today.

Fanja and Mirana had no interest in that kind of terminological debate. They were not interested in having an exact definition of their past working conditions. Instead, they wanted a way to free themselves from systems of economic exploitation and social marginalisation, which deprived them and a growing number of others not only of their means of production, but also their labour rights and their dignity. These systems are the result of the painful intermingling of the legacies of slavery, the neoliberal deregulation of labour relations, and the state’s inability to protect and advance social justice.

The research behind this article was carried out in the framework of ERC GRANT 313737 - Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond: a Historical Anthropology (www.shadowsofslavery.org).

About the author

Marco Gardini is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Milan Bicocca. His research investigates the legacies of slavery on the highlands of Madagascar and explores continuities and discontinuities in forms of labour exploitation.


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