What life’s actually like for Ethiopians in the Gulf

by | Nov 14, 2013

The BBC and other outlets are tonight carrying the story that some 23,000 Ethiopians have “surrendered” to police in Riyadh following a clampdown on illegal migrants last week that led to rioting and at least five deaths (accounts vary of the nationalities of those killed).

Local media reports like this have talked of “troublemakers” on the “rampage”, or of how many Saudi families have decided to fire their Ethiopian maids (“I have hired maids from different nationalities but I should say Ethiopians are the most arrogant and stubborn ones” … “I have always feared leaving my children under their care.”)

A psychologist might say that there’s some projection going on here, given that many, if not most, Ethiopian workers in the Gulf (and there are a lot of them) have a pretty awful time.

I’ve lived in Ethiopia since early 2012, and every time I fly out of Addis Ababa’s Bole airport I see dozens of migrant labourers waiting for flights to the other side of the Red Sea. This time last year, when I was in Qatar for the climate summit, I saw some of what awaited them at the other end.

While out for dinner with some Ethiopian colleagues, we discovered that many of Doha’s taxi drivers are Ethiopian too; naturally, they struck up a chat. Later, my colleagues related how unhappy their compatriots were: their passports held by their employers, preventing them from leaving the country until they’d paid back extortionate ‘loans’ that meant they had no option but to work up to 20 hours a day. It was to all intents and purposes a form of indentured labour.

The ones we didn’t see, of course, were the domestic staff, who have it even harder. For an account of their lives, read this account by an Ethiopian expat living in Canada, who heard some of their stories as they shared a flight from Bahrain back to Addis:

One such person was a young 16-year-old named Tigist … With the help of her employment agent, she faked her age in order to find employment in Lebanon. She was determined as she paid 10,000 Ethiopian Birr (about $550) for an agency to help her find an employment placement in Beirut for a two-year assignment. This was a hefty sum for someone from a working class background.

She reflected with me how her day began at 5 AM when she was always awoken by the man of the house and was pressured to perform sexual favors. Beatings would follow when and if she refused the advances. The more she refused, the harder the beating became. Around 6 am until 1 am, seven days a week, her duty entailed cleaning the seven-room mansion, cook, iron countless clothes for the large extended family and, oftentimes, she would be asked to do cleaning for families outside the owner’s mansion …

As months passed, the unending sexual advances and the pressure of the job it took its toll; she contemplated suicide as the only escape from her nightmarish life. After a two-month period that felt like a lifetime, she faked an illness so that she could be sent back home. Even though she worked for two long months, she was paid barely enough to buy her one-way ticket back to Ethiopia with a debt that is almost like a life sentence for such a young girl from a disadvantaged background.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s dependence on migrant remittances makes it hard for the government to call out its citizens’ often appalling treatment in Gulf countries. As this piece by migration researcher Bina Fernandez (pdf) notes, official estimates suggest that between 800,000 and a million Ethiopians work abroad – and remitted $800 million back home in 2008.  With estimated flows through unofficial channels included, the IMF estimates that remittances contribute 10-20% of Ethiopia’s GDP.

Especially since the economic crisis, she continues, unofficial migration has surged, especially to Saudi Arabia – and with it even harsher treatment for migrants:

“the illegal brokers operating along this route are brutally exploitative, stripping prospective migrants of all their money and often abandoning them in the desert before they even reach the coast of Somalia … many women who do manage to reach Yemen are marooned there, neither able to return to Ethiopia because of the exit fine payable to the Yemeni government because of their illegal migrant status in the country, nor able to undertake the even more dangerous and expensive next stage of the journey overland to Saudi Arabia.”

Fernandez’s structured interviews with women working in the Gulf echoes the anecdotal account quoted above:

“As live-in domestic workers, women reported, in the interviews I conducted in Addis Ababa, being on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and working between 10 and 20 hours daily. Some interviewees reported doing double duty – that is, cleaning or doing laundry for a second household, usually a relative of their employer. While some are fortunate to get half a day or a day off a week, many women get only one day off a month, or no break at all. Recounting her experience, one woman spoke of how her complete physical exhaustion from the lack of any break after four years working for a household in Dubai led to a mental breakdown, in which she was totally disoriented and could not tell what day of the week it was, or what time it was.”

Researchers have a phrase for this. They call it “contract slavery”.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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