Sunday, 22 May 2016

HOW I BECAME A SLAVE IN KUWAIT

For over a month, Rutendo Meki (not her real name) spent the little time she was allowed to rest crying herself to sleep. Cowering between two thin blankets in the midst of a biting Middle East winter, tired and confused, her thoughts oscillated between rage, regret and shame. Every day, she wondered how it all had gone wrong.

Barely a month earlier, she was on the cusp of what she thought was a great future with a job in the oil-rich Middle East.

Going through the “jobs” section in the local Press, Rutendo came across an advertisement that promised a life-changing opportunity.

Global Engine Employment Company was offering young Zimbabwean women employment as maids in Kuwait with a US$600 monthly salary, 30 leave days a year, free groceries every month and one off-day per week.

Maids in Zimbabwe are lucky to get US$100 monthly.

Kuwait has the fourth-highest per capita income in the world and the sixth-largest oil reserves, and its currency – the dinar – is the highest valued currency across the globe.

Immediately, Rutendo dialled the number supplied and on the other end, she says, was James Marodza (Marodza is now facing charges of human trafficking) who invited her to the agency’s offices in Vainona, Harare for an interview.

“He told me that all that was needed of me were my passport, police clearance, HIV test results and US$100 to facilitate visa processing,” recounts Rutendo, a college graduate.

“He told me that once I started working in Kuwait, I could change to a better job as an English teacher after only three months.”

It would take up to 10 days to process her visa and job placement once she produced these documents and money, she was told.

Everything was sorted within five days, and Rutendo received a call informing her that she would be leaving for Kuwait in two days.

“I could not believe how easy finding a job in a foreign country could be. I was so excited and could not believe my luck after spending such a long time unemployed and job-hunting in Zimbabwe.”

Rutendo was seen off at Harare International Airport by her proud parents and three-year-old son. Hugs and kisses were the order of the day.

Finally, one of their own had found the proverbial greener pastures. Or so they thought.

Foreign domestic workers in Kuwait are virtually slaves who live and work under very harsh conditions for little or no pay.

Kuwait’s Kafala laws regulate migrant labour in the Gulf Co-operation Council and migrant workers are traded for various sums ranging from US$200-US$3 000.

The system cedes oversight of foreign workers to private citizens and prohibits contracted employees from quitting their jobs or migrating to other countries. Breach of contract invariably attracts imprisonment.

Around two million domestic workers are employed in GCC member states.

Rutendo’s flight took her to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where they were to catch a connecting flight. To her surprise, the connecting flight on a much smaller plane only had women from various African countries on board.

And then the nightmare started.

On landing in Kuwait, immigration officials confiscated her documents, along with those of all the other women.

“The moment the immigration officials saw that I had a domestic work visa, they took away my passport and I was taken to a room where dozens of other girls were locked up.”

They spent the night without food, water or blankets amid the wintry temperatures. Though gravely uneasy, she tried to comfort herself with thoughts that things would be better in the morning.

“I was released the following morning when a lady by the name Hanan – who introduced herself as our employment agent – came to pick us up.

“She took us to a public transport terminus where we got onto a bus that took us to her office where she served us tea and stale bread – this was my first meal in over 24 hours.”

Hanan took her through orientation.

The rules were quite simple: no cellphones allowed, you do as your employer says, and never question their authority.

Rutendo was handed what she was told was her contract of employment and ordered to sign. The document was in Arabic.

Hanan “explained” to her the terms of the contract.

It was a two-year employment contract for domestic work and could not be revoked without the employer’s consent.

She signed, not knowing she had sold her soul.

Migrant workers’ domestic and construction work contracts in Kuwait are largely based on the Kafala system, and state that workers cannot change/quit jobs without the employer’s permission.

If one leaves a job without permission, the employer has the power to cancel his/her visa, automatically turning that worker into an illegal resident.

Workers whose visas are cancelled are deported – but often after doing hard time behind bars.

Before the ink had dried on Rutendo’s contract, her employer, an Arab lady of about 40 years of age, arrived and gave Hanan US$2 000.

She had just got herself a slave.

“When my ‘employer’ arrived, she was very blunt in the way she was dealing with Hanan. She paid US$2 000, clearly showing that I was being sold like an object.

“The agent also gave us strict instructions that we had to work hard and we had to do everything to please the employer. It was then that I realised that there was no turning back.”

On arriving at her employer’s house, she was ordered to surrender her bags, passport and cellphone. Something told her not to surrender her phone. So she lied that she did not have one.

Rutendo was then ordered to shave her head, bath and wear a tattered abaya (Arabic female attire).

She was to sleep in an outdoor passage leading to the backyard, and use an outdoor toilet which was later to become her bedroom as she escaped the cold outside.

Her new name was Kardama, she was told.

That night, she slept outside between two tattered blankets. She could only cry.

Her routine involved waking up at 4am to do her chores which included cleaning 15 rooms and six toilets, laundry and dishwashing.

She did all this with her employer in tow.

Rutendo was denied access to the outside world and beaten with all manner of weapons if she complained. She had ash trays with burning cigarettes thrown at her; told her salary would be US$200; and that she would get no time off work.

She worked 17 to 20 hours daily and survived on left-overs.

Rutendo had to escape.

She befriended her boss’ youngest child – a girl of about five. Rutendo persuaded the girl to give her Internet access, and this enabled her to communicate with friends from home, alerting them of her predicament.

Through a stroke of luck, one of her friends contacted a Zimbabwean man resident in Kuwait and he got in touch with embassy officials.

Eventually, the embassy officials located Hanan, pressuring her to reveal Rutendo’s whereabouts. Hanan buckled. But it wasn’t over yet.

“Hanan’s brother was very cruel; he assaulted me on several occasions, saying he would kill me and accused me of having ruined their deal.

“They wanted the US$2 000 repaid, so he was adamant I would not be allowed to leave until that money had been raised. On a number of times, a delegation from the embassy visited me to negotiate my release, but Hanan and the brother were very rude to the officials as they insisted that they could only release me after the money was paid.”

The money was raised after some days. And so, Rutendo is back home – thankfully. sunday mail

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