Zeini Kadir escaped at dawn, when the gates of the house in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, were open for morning prayers.
Barefoot, she ended up at an agency catering to Ethiopian workers like her. After flying to Addis Ababa, she rode two buses and walked three hours to the mud-walled home where she grew up. She’d lasted just three months, cooking and cleaning seven days a week in the 18-room house where she said she was beaten with a stick. Still, she said she would have stayed in Saudi Arabia if she could have found another job.
“It’s different from house to house,” Zeini, 19, said, smiling. “Not all employers are bad.” Anyway, “what jobs are there here?”
So few that her father, Kadir Biftu, borrowed 6,000 birr ($327) to send her in August to the Persian Gulf port city, where she could earn enough to pay the debt in months -- something he couldn’t do in a year as a farmer. “We’ll be very happy if she goes back to Saudi Arabia,” said Zelika Kusay, Zeini’s mother, after a snack of maize browned over a fire.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, has imported female servants for decades. The Indonesian government stemmed the flow after the beheading of an Indonesian maid convicted of killing her employer in June 2011. Maids from the Philippines had also stopped arriving, after Filipino lawmakers wrote a report on alleged abuses, including rapes and beatings.
So the Saudis turned to Ethiopia, across the Red Sea, where most people live on less than $2 a day. “Saudi Arabia will choose the most compliant country,” said Walden Bello, chairman of the Overseas Workers Affairs Committee in the Philippine House of Representatives.
Nearly 160,000 Ethiopian women went to work in Saudi Arabia in the 12 months ending July 7, more than 10 times the number a year earlier, data from the Ethiopian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs show. Tens of thousands more migrated illegally, according to the United Nations.
“I have a little fear,” said Addis Mitiku, 23, before taking a job in Jeddah, in western Saudi Arabia. She’d recently returned to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, from the United Arab Emirates, with marks on her arm where she said the woman she kept house for there bit her. “But you don’t get good work here, you don’t get good money.”
While the government estimates the average college graduate in Ethiopia earns about $90 a month, a maid can make $200 a month in Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom employs more than 750,000 domestic servants, according to the UN’s International Labor Organization. New York-based Human Rights Watch puts the number at 1.5 million or more. While many “enjoy decent work conditions,” the nonprofit said in a 2008 report, “others endure a range of abuses,” including conditions amounting to forced confinement and sexual and physical abuse.
“The legal framework in Saudi Arabia is extremely hostile to migrant women’s rights,” said Nisha Varia, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
A Saudi law guaranteeing one day off a week and limiting hours worked doesn’t apply to housekeepers, according to the group. Employers control a worker’s immigration status, including when he or she can leave the country.
“It’s a problem that’s been growing and growing with nobody really addressing the issue,” said Basma bint Saud, 48, the youngest child of the late King Saud. Domestic workers “do not have rights.”
After the beheading of the maid from Indonesia, that government stopped issuing new visas for citizens to work in Saudi Arabia as domestics. Two weeks ago, the Saudis sparked another outcry over an execution, when a Sri Lankan maid, convicted of smothering a baby to death, was beheaded.
A few months before Indonesia issued its moratorium, the Saudis had cut off new work permits for Filipina maids, following the lawmakers’ investigation. “Our report was a chronicle of abuse,” Bello, the congressman, said. They found rape was an “ever-present” danger for maids and that beatings were common, according to a copy of the report posted online.
In September, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia reached an agreement giving maids “stronger guarantees for their welfare and protection,” according to the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment, including one day off a week, sick leave, paid vacations and a minimum wage of $400 a month.
The governments are in talks over a Filipino request that welfare centers for domestics be created and a process for settling disputes with employers be established. The Philippines has started processing exit papers for maids to Saudi Arabia, according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.
Still, Ethiopians are “a good alternative,” said Hassan al-Maqbool, chairman of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s recruitment committee. He declined to comment on claims maids have been mistreated. Saudi Ministry of Labor officials didn’t respond to e-mails.
In Addis Ababa, Zerihun Kebede, Ethiopia’s state minister of labor and social affairs, said the government tolerates the maid trade for now. “We prefer people should work, create their own jobs, at home and contribute to the nation’s development,” he said. The government’s goal is to “change the mindset” of citizens by raising awareness of jobs in growing industries in the Ethiopian economy, including construction and horticulture.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs offers a three-hour course for would-be maids. Rasheeda Haddish, a women’s rights researcher, said students she observed were reduced to laughter as teachers told them how to use a sanitary napkin and explained that toothpaste isn’t a face cream.
“It wasn’t adequate,” she said. “ They need more training.”
Samira Abdurahman, 24, said she ran away from three Saudi households before an agency placed her with a fourth, where she said the patriarch raped her. Even so, she said she had to think twice before leaving Saudi Arabia, because her monthly salary was 750 riyals ($200). Now she makes less than one-quarter of that selling tea and coffee in the capital.
“I was supporting my family,” she said. “I would advise others to go because of the economic problems we face here.”
For Negisti Ayalkibet, the $130-a-month she earned in Jeddah was enough to buy furniture and a Sony television for her family in Addis Ababa, and to build a toilet, so they don’t have to share an outdoor pit. An Orthodox Christian, she said she paid a bribe to have her name changed on her passport to the Muslim “Saida Mohammed,” so she could be sure to get a job in a country where Islam is the official religion.
Now she wants to be a maid again, this time in a country where she could practice her religion. “You get tired,” she said, “but you make money.”
Zeini Kadir said she became fed up in Dammam when one of her bosses criticized her clothes-washing skills. “I got tired and I spoke back to the old lady,” she said. “Then the wife of one of the sons threatened me with a knife.”
After she sneaked out the next day, police officers who found her wandering the streets drove her to the employment agency. Though she said she asked the agency to place her with another Saudi household, she was sent home instead.
Her parents said they were happy to have her back for a while in Seero, a village 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Addis Ababa. Her father grows barley, garlic and other crops on 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres), and her mother tends to seven sheep.
The third-eldest of 10 children, Zeini flunked exams that would have allowed her to continue past 10th grade. So she was expected to follow in the footsteps of an older sister, whose husband sent her to Saudi Arabia.
He lent his father-in-law the money to pay fees to set Zeini up as a maid. Costs vary, and recruiters may charge what Varia of Human Rights Watch called “exorbitant fees.”
“I spent too much money on her,” her father said, resting after dinner, the room dimly lit by a flashlight.
To Zeini’s mother, the Arabian Peninsula is a sort of paradise, a view fueled by local hearsay about the wealth daughters can accumulate in jobs in glitzy far-away cites.
“I have heard that people who went to an Arab country came back and built a house,” she said.
As Zeini arranges her next assignment, she’s trying to recoup the wages she said she didn’t receive in Dammam. Her contract with an employment agency -- which said she would stay two years -- entitled her to quit if she suffered “serious insult” or “inhuman or unbearable treatment.” The agency’s owner said Zeini abrogated the contract when she ran away.
While the adults talked, Zeini’s 10-year-old sister, Momina, excitedly counted the fingers on one hand. She was asking for money, her amused mother explained.
Clutching her exercise books as she prepared to go to school, Momina outlined her aspirations.
“I want to go abroad,” she said. “I want to go to Riyadh.”