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Hundreds of Mauritanian women trafficked to Saudi Arabia trapped in 'slavery'

Local activists said Mauritanian women are being subjected to sexual harassment and physical abuse while working in Saudi Arabia
A file photo shows a group of Mauritanian women in the capital Nouakchott (EPA)

More than 900 Mauritanian women have been trafficked to Saudi Arabia in 2015, where they are trapped working in jobs they did not sign up for, a local activist has told Middle East Eye.

The women believed they were going to be employed as nurses or teachers, but on arrival in Saudi Arabia they were forced to work as domestic workers in homes across the kingdom, Elmehdi Ould Lemrabott, who is based in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, told MEE.

“Some of these women who objected were subjected to rape attempts, sexual harassment, physical abuse and starvation – as well as being confined to tiny rooms,” Lemrabott said.

Saudi Arabia began letting workers from Mauritania into the country at the beginning of 2015. Riyadh’s Ministry of Labour advertised jobs specified for men (drivers, waiters and domestic workers) and jobs specified for women (nurses, primary schoolteachers and domestic workers).

The opportunity attracted a high number of applications due to Mauritania’s high unemployment rate - currently above 30 percent - and widespread poverty, which is experienced by more than 40 percent of the North African country’s nearly four million people.

A black market quickly sprang up to take advantage of local interest in Saudi-based jobs, according to Lemrabott, which the government did not pick up on.

“A group of people opened secret employment offices not in accordance with the law and away from the sight of authorities,” Lemrabott said. “Women are being trafficked one by one secretly so the authorities do not take notice.”

Before the women travel to Saudi Arabia, they sign contracts that promise them a salary of 1,200 Saudi riyals per month ($320), more than double the average national wage in Mauritania. The contract includes a stipulation that the employee must repay their travel costs once in Saudi Arabia.

“This allows the manager of the employment office the right to receive the employee’s salary for the first few months of their employment until the money is repaid,” Lemrabott told MEE.

The salary is often much lower than the one originally promised, Lemrabott added, as on arrival the women have their identity documents seized and contracts “replaced with one that effectively turns them into slaves in the households they work in".

MEE spoke to one woman who was trafficked to Saudi Arabia, but after a brief phone call she said that she was too scared of the repercussions to be quoted in the media. 

Many of the women have desperately spoken out about their suffering, primarily to a new campaign group set up in the Mauritanian capital called the Popular Initiative against the Violation of the Haratin Women Workers’ Rights in Saudi Arabia.

The Initiative, of which Lemrabott is a member, says the workers in Saudi Arabia claim that they have been forced to work 18 hours a day with no breaks and are not granted time off at weekends or paid overtime. Others have accused their Saudi employers of physical abuse and sexual harassment, including attempted rape.

The initiative is named after the Haratin ethnic group, which comprises 40 percent of Mauritania’s population. Many Haratins are descended from slaves - a practice abolished in 1981 and only criminalised in 2007 by Mauritania – but poor access to education has led to reports some have returned to their former masters out of necessity and been returned to slave-like conditions.

For the Haratin women who have sought a better life in Saudi Arabia, but been thrown into allegedly abusive conditions, they have fallen off the radar for Mauritanian authorities.

The workers are not registered with employment offices in Saudi Arabia, which means Nouakchott is not aware of their presence in the kingdom.

“This is due to the fact that the process is done individually and illegally by anonymous offices [on the Mauritanian black market],” Lemrabott said.

Out of the nine million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, almost a third are undocumented. In 2013, the Saudi government embarked on a two-year long deportation campaign in which as many as half a million undocumented migrant workers out of nearly three million were kicked out of the country. 

Despite migrant workers constituting over half the workforce in Saudi Arabia, they remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by their employers and are not protected by labour laws.

Many of these workers suffer from excessive working hours, wages withheld for months or years on end, food deprivation, and severe psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

When, or if, Mauritanian authorities try to confront alleged abuses of their citizens in Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch has warned it may be a significant challenge for such a poor country.

“It is cheaper for Saudi Arabia to import labour from countries such as Mauritania, who are poor and do not have the resources with which to protect trafficked citizens,” said Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Whereas, with somewhere like the Philippines, we have seen the government successfully negotiate minimum salaries and improved working conditions for their citizens who are working in Saudi Arabia.”

After numerous reports of Filipino workers being abused in Saudi Arabia, authorities in the southeast Asian country moved to demand Riyadh uphold a minimum wage of $400 per month and safeguard living standards including a weekly day off and the right for workers to keep possession of their passport.

Although Saudi authorities banned all Filipino workers for one year, they eventually ceded to the demands.

For now, the newly established initiative to protect Haratin workers is calling on Mauritanian authorities to intervene and have the women trapped in Saudi Arabia returned home. A demonstration was recently held in front of the Saudi embassy in Nouakchott, but Lemrabott said the response was negative.

“It was suppressed violently by riot police, and a number of activists from within the initiative were arrested,” he said. “And the authorities have not responded to any of the demands.”

“The government is turning a blind eye to the issue,” he added, saying more protests are being planned for the future.

Local trade unions – including the General Confederation of Workers of Mauritania and the Najda Organisation for Slavery – are also trying to pressure authorities into shutting down illegal traffickers. The unions have also called for an official process to be established protecting people who want to work in Saudi Arabia.

The International Trade Union Confederation, which receives daily reports on trafficking from their Mauritanian counterparts, has called on Nouakchott to confront the issue immediately.

“Mauritania needs to act immediately to free the women who have been trafficked to Saudi Arabia and trapped in domestic slavery there, and to stop the traffickers and bring them to justice,” Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary, said in a statement.

The Saudi and Mauritanian embassies in London did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication. 

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