The year 2016, ends with Malawi counting the costs of repatriating citizens who were illegally trafficked to the Gulf States of Kuwait and United Arab Emirates, South Korea and South Africa.
Before the labour export initiative was popularised by the Joyce Banda administration, critics warned of the downside of the plan and dubbed it “modern-day slavery”.
“Chances of people being exploited is higher, [instead] the government should focus at creating jobs here at home,” rights activist Billy Mayaya warned when the then president Joyce Banda launched the initiative in 2013.
Government plan was to negotiate employment opportunities for young school leavers to address rising unemployment in the country where almost 50 percent of the population is unemployed.
Independent studies in the country show that up to 200 000 youths enter the job market every year although only 40 000 new jobs are created.
Malawi wanted to send up to 100 000 migrant workers aged between 19 and 40 years to South Korea, Dubai and Kuwait.
The government even launched an advertising blitz for vacancies in the hospitality and agricultural sectors in those countries.
But Wiseman Chijere Chirwa, a policy analysis lecturer at the University of Malawi, was sceptical just as Mayaya and other critics.
“Why would an Asian country be interested in Malawi labour?” asked Chirwa. “The danger is that Malawi labour might be favoured for its cheapness, thereby pushing Malawians into ultra-oppressive and ultra-exploitative labour regimes.”
Some stakeholders blamed the government for failing to put in place stronger legislation that would make it difficult for human traffickers masquerading as employment agents.
But government was adamant the move would be beneficial as workers will send cash home and build up savings in foreign currency.
Two years down the line, the ugly face of labour exports reared its head. More that 60 women fled from their Kuwaiti employees citing various abuses, including sexual harassment.
Officials from the Malawi Embassy in Doha said most of the women arrived at the office in a state of destitution, having run away from their masters without money, clothes or travel documents.
Weak, helpless and desperate to return home, the women pleaded with government to help them.
No sooner had some 33 women arrived in Malawi than reports emerged that 20 more Malawian men and women had fled their employers and were stranded in Doha, Kuwait’s capital.
Although government assured the nation of swift action to rescue those stranded, it needed money for their repatriation.
In late August, one of the 20 returnees, Blantyre-based Cathy Maloya poured out her frustrations on the treatment she suffered in Kuwait.
“I was shown my bedroom which was a pen for cats, 15 of them. I was told that before I start work at 6am I should make sure that I have bathed and fed all the cats,” she said with tears in her eyes.
“I was then expected to start cleaning the house which was a five floor building (flat) where twenty family members were living. I was tasked to attend to all of these family members ensuring that I have prepared a bath, food and clothes for them. My day would only come to an end at 2 am the next day eating one chapatti and a cup of coffee the whole day,” she recalls.
She revealed that after working for three weeks she decided to run away after one of her master’s children threatened to kill her.
Maloya said they were promised $500 (about K370 000) per month in salaries but were instead being given 70 Kuwait dinar (about K150 000) as gross salary, which was coming down to K100 000 after agents’ deduction.
However, she said exploitation of workers starts here at home where employments agents dupe those seeking employment outside the country.
“We pay a lot of money to agents only to return home with nothing,” she says.
According to Minister of Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development Henry Mussa conducting a repatriation exercise is extremely expensive.
“And with the way our economy has been of late, we are challenged to conduct wholesome repatriation.
He gave an example of South Africa where repatriation by air of just 100 Malawians stranded in holding camps costs about R1 million (about K50 million).
Mussa has since warned desperate job seekers to avoid being conned by unscrupulous agents. n