Ethiopia recruits 500,000 women for domestic work in Saudi Arabia

Factual Pursuit of Truth for Progress

Human rights activists have faulted Ethiopia’s continuing hiring of women for domestic work in Saudi Arabia.


In early March, Hirut* was playing with her toddler at her home in Addis Ababa’s Mekanisa district, when she got a call from an unknown number asking if she wanted to work in the Middle East.


It came as a shock for the 27-year-old, who spent six years as a domestic worker in Kuwait before returning to Ethiopia in 2020.


“I was afraid because I thought they might be human traffickers and wondered how they found my name and number,” she told Al Jazeera.


The callers told Hirut that they were state employees, who had obtained her file from a government database for returnee migrants from the Middle East.


Since the ‘80s, Ethiopians have been flocking to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Kuwait in search of blue-collar jobs, mostly arranged by local Ethiopian recruitment agencies or human traffickers.


This time, the Ethiopian government is overseeing the entire process, including recruitment and advertising.


Administrative documents seen by Al Jazeera reveal plans to recruit as many as half a million women between the ages of 18-40, to send to Saudi Arabia to work as domestic workers.


In early March, notices first began appearing on Facebook and on billboards in Ethiopian towns and cities, urging women to register for employment in Saudi Arabia, at government offices.


Returnees like Hirut who are familiar with the culture and the language are being actively solicited alongside new recruits. In remote areas, public officials, including deputy mayors, are intervening to personally oversee orientation sessions.


“We’re being told that this is an opportunity of a lifetime,” says one recruit attending a session in the northern Amhara region. “I was told that this was a quicker path to success in life than school.”


In a communique, the Amhara region’s East Gojjam district administration said it intended to recruit 13,000 women there.


In early 2020, Saudi Arabia temporarily banned labour migration from Ethiopia to curb the spread of COVID-19. The ban was lifted in February and Ethiopian authorities launched their recruitment drive.


“Due to our country’s strong diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, job opportunities for 500,000 Ethiopians, including 150,000 from [the Amhara] region have been made available,” Tsehaye Bogale, a communications official in Ethiopia’s Amhara regional administration said in an official communique.


Under the programme, women will board flights paid for by the government. In Saudi Arabia, migrant workers may earn 1,000 riyals monthly (about $266), more than most jobs on offer in Ethiopia where the per capita annual gross domestic product (GDP) was $925 in 2021.


Federal officials are also hailing the programme as a life-saving endeavour, highlighting the dangers Ethiopians face on perilous journeys along migrant corridors through Yemen and Djibouti.


“Ethiopian and Somali migrants en route to Saudi Arabia can be murdered, or die in road accidents in Yemen and are quickly buried with no follow-up,” said Sagal Abas, an activist and humanitarian worker focusing on migration in Yemen and the Horn of Africa.


By removing travel through Yemen from the equation, the Ethiopian government claims that it is containing the danger.


“Our ministry is working to ensure Ethiopians can migrate for work without risking their lives and with their salaries and wellbeing guaranteed,” Amsalu Basha, an official at the Ethiopian Ministry of Labor and Skills explained in a state media broadcast last month.


He clarified that the request for mass deployment of Ethiopian workers came from the Saudi government.


Amsalu also said that 21-day orientation sessions were being given at 77 locations, mostly college campuses, nationwide, to prepare recruits for life in Saudi Arabia.


Ten of the centres are in Addis Ababa, according to the city’s deputy mayor Jantirar Abay. “[The programme] will prove highly beneficial for our economy in addition to creating jobs, as such it requires our utmost dedication,” he told fellow officials in March.



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