Ethiopian domestics return home from Saudi Arabia. Mopaw Foundation/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)
Sophie was looking tired when I met her in Kampala in January 2016. We’d last met the summer before in Turkey when she told me that her employer had refused to pay her wages. I offered to help her make an official complaint but she just shrugged and said, “Forget about it – nothing will come of it except for trouble”.
When we saw each other again, she told me of how she’d finally managed to get out and make it home. But what she told me also made me realise that her experience in Turkey had been only one stage of a much longer journey of exploitation that had taken her through Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Her depressingly similar experiences in three different countries over a period of five years says a lot about how gender and international migration regimes can conspire against migrant workers.
From housewife to breadwinner
Sophie’s life had always been a tough one. At 17, she married a man who promised to support her studies. But after three children and still no education, Sophie had had enough. She left her children and put herself through college where she qualified as a masseuse. “The job I got afterwards fed my children and put them through school”, she said. But life was still hard and when a client in Kampala offered her a job in Dubai, she jumped at the chance.
The client paid for my visa, ticket, everything … but when I reached Dubai it was a different story. She picked me from the airport and took me to one of the rooms she rented to a group of prostitutes. I asked how much I would have to pay back to her because I had to send money to my children. She told me that I'd work for her for two months … I was a housemaid. I was always waiting on them, cooking African food … I started doing massages in the house and I was making a lot of money for her – maybe $10,000 in months.
But Sophie’s employer wanted more and tried to make her to sell sex. She refused – and that’s when the mistreatment began. “I tried to find another job for myself in Dubai but my visa was finished and I couldn’t find a thing”. So after three months she left Dubai having earned just enough to cover the fine for overstaying her visa.
“I don't mind working hard if I’m getting money”
Back in Uganda and back where she’d started, Sophie still faced the pressure of needing to support her children and she still lacked the money necessary to start her business. So she decided to migrate again. This time, her destination was Turkey, where she’d heard that one could earn as much as $350 a month. “I don't mind working hard if I’m getting money”, she said. She decided not to use an intermediary or an agent and raised more than $2000 to get to Turkey on her own.
“People at the airport in Istanbul ask for $200 to look after you for the first weeks. They’re mostly Ugandans and it was a street woman who received me. If they find you a job, you give them $50 and you have to pay for the transportation card, food, etc. Everything costs money and work is scarce”.
Sophie’s first job was in a textile factory. She worked for two months, nine hours a day, six days a week. It was hard. “Even staying in the toilet for too long was not allowed”, she said. She was paid for only two weeks of her work: “they said we shall pay...we shall pay...but they never did”. Employers take advantage of newcomers who know nothing about working in Turkey, don’t speak Turkish, and don’t have work permits.
Black migrants like Sophie also face discrimination on the grounds of their race, and Sophie encountered racism everywhere she worked.
It was after this that I first met Sophie, working in her second factory. Here she was getting paid, but she only had a few hours of work a week. So she decided to find another job and, through friends, found a massage job in the southern tourist city of Antalya. Again, she ended up working for two months without pay.
Work for Ugandan women like Sophie is hard in Turkey, in part because getting a work permit is a long and difficult bureaucratic process. Employers must apply on behalf of migrant workers either before they arrive in Turkey or after the migrant worker has been granted a six-month residence visa. Without this, workers exist in a legal limbo that suits exploitative employers. It leaves the undocumented too vulnerable to claim their rights. Black migrants like Sophie also face discrimination on the grounds of their race, and Sophie encountered racism everywhere she worked. In the end, she stayed in Turkey for 11 months, saving little more than the cost of the exit fine for overstaying her visa once again.
The journey to Saudi Arabia
Back in Uganda, and Sophie still struggled to find a good job, so she decided once again to migrate, this time to Saudi Arabia as a housemaid. For this she used an agency, which didn’t ask for any money upfront. All her expenses, except for the medical report to prove that she wasn’t HIV+, were paid by the agency. Although on first sight this seemed a good deal, Sophie described what happened as like being ‘enslaved’ by the agency.
When she arrived in Riyadh she was kept in a hostel and taught how to clean. She was also given some basic orientation and some Arabic words. The hostels were “like a prison”, with people locked inside. “They give you a profile picture and you are on the computer – they sell you through the computer. They give you a uniform and hijab and then they pass you out”.
Sophie worked for a family for three weeks before she simply had to leave:
The smaller apartment had six or seven rooms and a big living room. I was mopping the floor, cleaning everything. When I finished working there, they lent me to other family members. They have married sons and daughters and you also work for them. You eat after everyone else and they don’t even care if you eat nothing. People have collapsed doing this work – starved and collapsed! You receive $150 but you never know how much the family pays the agency.
Sophie felt like a “slave” and lacked for sleep and food. She wanted out but leaving meant breaking her contract. “I told the family and the agency that I wasn’t well. The agency was pushing me to stay and they wanted to just dump me in another hostel”. She managed to get back to Uganda but only by paying the agency off. So again, she made nothing from her trip.
Being a female migrant worker
Sophie is a strong woman. She was unafraid to tell her story and refused to keep quiet about her experiences. Partly because she went public, the Ugandan government has banned businesses from sending maids to Saudi Arabia. But, as Sophie says, the trade has just gone underground and Ugandans are now being smuggled across borders. Outlawing the agents has done nothing to alter the fact that poor people seeking to earn money through migration have to risk precarious, undocumented lifestyles and many forms of exploitation.
In all three different countries, women like Sophie are abused because of their gender and their race.
Sophie had hoped that migration would allow her to earn enough money to start a business that would support her kids. But she has now worked in three different countries and has been exploited in all of them. Agents, brokers, smugglers and employers have all made money from her labour while she’s never made more than the fine to pay her way out and return home.
On the face of it, Sophie has ‘failed’ as a migrant. But we know that she has been a victim of the unequal social relations that divide migrants from citizens and which are continually reinforced by immigration and labour market controls. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Dubai share migration regimes that maintain an uneven playing field and keep migrants as ‘expendable’. These regimes create highly precarious migrant groups who can be exploited by various third parties. In all three different countries, women like Sophie are abused because of their gender and their race.
Now firmly back in Kampala, Sophie is working for a hotel as a masseuse. She works 10-12 hours a day and is happy. But she still dreams of opening her own salon, and she’s still looking for the money she needs to do so.