Human Trafficking: Modern Day Slavery

Women are the unsung heroes in every family. They are the breadwinners whose story is forever suppressed and whose effort is often undermined. Women in Africa shoulder the burden of providing for their families: school fees, housing, food and clothing for all their dependants.

History was unfair to women and most of them were not able to get an education. Whereas people of the male sex fill all positions in the white collar society, women are not vested with the same opportunity simply because they do not have the relevant job qualifications. Even those who had an opportunity to study, their school days were short lived due to an unexpected and an unwanted pregnancy or the unsupportive community from where they were raised.

Whereas this should not in any way impute that there are no women out there who have got an excellent education, it cannot still be denied that the largest percentage of the female people has not had a good education. That explains the several efforts by several governments to empower women through affirmative action programs.

Despite their lack of an education, women have often resorted to doing all sorts of domestic work to be able to raise money to provide for their families: they clean other people’s houses, do laundry, till the land, hawk fruits and fresh food, hawk snacks…but that work does not raise enough to sustain their families.

Opportunities of being a domestic worker in the oil rich Gulf States in the Middle East are more than enticing. They would rather be away from their homes and send money for their upkeep that stay to watch their families wallow in poverty. So, they often go to those countries hoping to work hard get the much needed money to send home. Little do they know what awaits them.  Little do they know what they have signed up for. It is never well-paying domestic work


Human trafficking is a crime. It is a weighty violation of human rights.

Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines Trafficking in Persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs

Elements of Human Trafficking

On the basis of the definition given in the Trafficking in Persons Protocol, it is evident that trafficking in persons has three constituent elements;

  1. The Act

Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons

  1. The Means

Threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim

  1. The Purpose

For the purpose of exploitation, this includes exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or similar practices and the removal of organs.

 In addition to the criminalization of trafficking, the Trafficking in Persons Protocol requires criminalization also of:

  • Attempts to commit a trafficking offence
  • Participation as an accomplice in such an offence
  • Organizing or directing others to commit trafficking.

They are overworked. They are sexually abused and harassed. Female workers who leave Africa to go to Saudi Arabia and work suffer these gross human rights violations. In a country that is predominantly Muslim, you would think that the teachings of the holy book would have a trickling effect on the way they treat those named, servants.

 Saudi Arabia is currently under scrutiny over allegations of rape, torture and harassment of domestic workers. Returnees from the desert land have horrifying testimonies of the conditions under which they worked.

Brenda Namazzi (not real name) went to Saudi Arabia to work as a house maid. She was attracted by the good salary and the excitement of being away in a faraway land, earning money that when converted into local currency would buy things she always considered luxuries. That upon reaching there, she was told she would be paid about $250. Little did she know that she had come as sex slave without her knowledge. She was forced to have sexual relations with about five men every day. In addition, she would do house chores. That notwithstanding, she was never paid for the “services she rendered” she recalls that one day, the son of her employer came into her room and raped her.

When Brenda reported the incident to the employer, she was severely punished by caning and was imprisoned for two months. While in prison, her employer sent her an air ticket to return to Uganda. She, in prison uniform and slippers simply headed for the airport. She returned with no penny to her name and a broken soul.

On the other hand, Atim Grace (not real name) holds a degree in secretarial studies from Makerere University. She says she could not find a job for three years after graduation. So she decided to go and work abroad since the salary was good. Upon reaching there, things were not as she had been told they would be.

 “When I complained that the work was a lot, I was then taken to different houses to work still as a maid. On several occasions, I was assaulted and sexually harassed by the men in the house. One night my boss tried to rape me but somehow the wife got to know about it. So, when he left, the wife got his brothers and tied me down. She got a knife and put it at my throat and also pierced my thighs and then I was thrown in the store and locked inside without any treatment. Due to over-bleeding, I think I collapsed and I woke up in a clinic. After some few days, my bosses came to the clinic to pick me and told me that I have to report to work immediately.

I had nothing to do but to go back and work even though I was weak and could not finish work in time. One time, my lady boss found me cleaning the kitchen and pushed me down the stairs. The scar she had inflicted on my neck ruptured again and this time I was not taken to the clinic but to prison on allegations that I had stolen my boss’ money,” she recounted.

“I really suffered at the hands of the Arabs. In the evening, my boss picked me from prison but that night I told them that if they don’t take me back home [Uganda], I would kill myself. They allowed me to go back home the following day but I was never allowed to pick any of my belongings, never allowed to even take a shower. For the seven months that I spent in Saudi Arabia, I had never laughed, I only laughed when I met a colleague at the airport,” she said.

Following the various reports of abuse, the Ugandan government went ahead and banned its citizens from taking jobs as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

Wilson Muruli Mukasa, minister of gender, labour and social development, issued a statement saying that the government continued “to receive information of our people being subjected to inhumane treatment at the hands of the employers in Saudi Arabia” and that the ban would remain in force until the conditions are deemed fitting.

The decision came six months after Saudi Arabia and Uganda signed a memorandum of understanding that enabled Ugandan domestic workers to seek employment in Saudi Arabia. Looking at the labour implications involved may be the right document between the two countries would have been a bilateral treaty, not a memorandum of understanding. The move at that time was seen as a way of addressing high unemployment rates among young people in Uganda.

The Minister of gender also said that the signing of the memorandum was to help and curb on the trafficking in persons to Saudi Arabia. With a world historical shame on record that some countries one time regarded other races as lesser persons and therefore took them on as slaves, human trafficking is another lucrative trade happening in our world.

Uganda became the fourth country after Indonesia, Ethiopia and the Philippines to ban their nationals from travelling to Saudi to work as domestic workers over concerns of abuse.

According to Ugandan figures, about 500 housemaids have gone to Saudi Arabia since the deal took effect.

Sometime back, thirty two Zimbabwean women who were lured for employment in Kuwait but ended up being abused in the Middle East country arrived back in Zimbabwe. One of the women was reported pregnant.

While addressing a press conference, Speaker of the National Assembly Advocate Jacob Mudenda who had accompanied the women from Kuwait said the experience the women went through was touching. He said the situation for the women was desperate in Kuwait and he was happy with the assistance they got from the Kuwait Government to bring them back home. “The situation was desperate. This was perpetrated by a syndicate of criminals both in Zimbabwe and Kuwait,” he said. Advocate Mudenda said twenty-eighty of the women were housed at a shelter while two were in police custody and two others took refuge at the Zimbabwean embassy in Kuwait.

Efforts were also made to unite the women with their families. Some of them were traumatised.

These sorry tales demonstrate the suffering mostly domestic workers; go through in Saudi Arabia and other Arab and Gulf states. Though they willingly go there with promises of money, they are, instead, turned into sex slaves!

In Lebanon, a Kenyan maid had bleach poured over her head by an employer as punishment for cleaning the bathroom too slowly. She was constantly threatened that she would be sent home “in a box”.

In Saudi Arabia, another domestic worker from Kenya was given an ugly choice: sex with the boss or death. For the fear of death, she always obeyed. It always left her feeling like a prostitute.

With the tempting promise of well-paid work and a chance to escape joblessness at home, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans are lured into accepting offers of employment in the Middle East. They always hope to send the much needed remittances to their families, once they get paid for their services.

But reports of abuse prompted Kenya last September to ban its citizens from seeking domestic work in the Middle East and to revoke the licenses of 930 recruitment agencies. In Kenya, only 6.25 percent of those entering the job market each year find formal employment, according to the World Bank.

Despite the government’s crackdown on recruitment to the Middle East, business continues to flourish due to corruption, the desperation of Kenyans who want a better life, and the greed of agents. Paul Adhoch, the Executive Director of Trace Kenya, a charity organisation that rescues Kenyan workers who are trapped in the Middle East was quoted to have said, “It’s just like a game of public relations to show that the ministry of labor is doing some work. Yet at the end of the day, nothing really happens, it’s business as usual. Most agents are still recruiting.”

Many rights groups say that what is happening to migrant workers in the Middle East is tantamount to modern day slavery.

From the stories of those who have experienced this slavery, maids are often kept under lock and key by their employer, forced to work more than 18 hours a day, deprived of food and wages or threatened and physically and sexually abused.

“You are under the total control of your employer,” Adhoch said. “You are virtually their slave.” Indonesia banned its citizens from working in 21 countries after two maids were beheaded for murder in Saudi Arabia.

One Kenyan woman spent two months in a Saudi deportation center after complaining about not getting paid. There, she found over 100 workers from Kenya, Uganda, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Ghana being held there. She reported that some of the women held there had gone mad. Other women were pregnant or taking care of babies that they said were born as a result of rape by their employers


Though they are related, human trafficking should be distinguished from migrant smuggling. Smuggling of Migrants is a crime. It involves the procurement for financial or other material benefit of illegal entry of a person into a State of which that person is not a national or resident. The Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air (Smuggling of Migrants Protocol) supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Under article 3 of the Smuggling of Immigrants Protocol, the smuggling of migrants is defined as the “procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.”

Article 6 of the Smuggling of Immigrants Protocol requires states to criminalize both smuggling of migrants and enabling of a person to remain in a country illegally, as well as aggravating circumstances that endanger lives or safety, or entail inhuman or degrading treatment of migrants.

Almost every country in the world is affected by this crime. It could be as a country where the immigrants originate, as one for transit or even the destination for the smuggled immigrants. Smuggled migrants are exposed to life-threatening risks and are usually subjected to inhuman treatment. Thousands of people, young and old are packed and suffocated in containers, they are starved and they die of highly contagious diseases, they perish in deserts, they are dehydrated and often drown at sea.

Smuggling of immigrants is one of the ways corrupt officials in governments make a lot of money. It is a form of organised crime.

According to the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime, Migrant Smuggling flourishes by providing smuggling services to irregular migrants to evade national border controls, migration regulations and visa requirements. Most irregular migrants resort to the assistance of profit-seeking smugglers. As border controls have improved, migrants are deterred from attempting to illegally cross them themselves and are diverted into the hands of smugglers.

More so, criminals in the business of smuggling immigrants enjoy low risk of detection and punishment. As a result, the crime is becoming increasingly attractive to criminals. Migrant smugglers are becoming more and more organized, establishing professional networks that transcend borders and regions. They use very sophisticated and expensive services and rely on document fraud or ‘visa-smuggling’.

The Smuggling of Migrants Protocol aims at:

  • Preventing and combating the smuggling of migrants
  • Protecting the rights of smuggled migrants
  • Promoting cooperation between states

Under the Universal declaration of human rights, it a right of every person red, black, yellow or white to be free from slavery. Article 4 states that no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.  Article 5 goes further to guarantee freedom from   torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 23 of the Universal declaration of human rights also provides that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment; that everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work; that everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection; and that everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

The rights enshrined in article 23 of the Universal declaration of human rights are also contained in the Declaration on fundamental Principles and Rights at work

What must Africa do to prevent human trafficking?

While some countries are creating policies that work for their cultures, others are lagging behind with no counter-trafficking laws at all. There are also some international standards: In 2003, the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons established a universal trafficking definition and set a goal for countries to prevent and combat trafficking and assist victims. According to the Walk Free Foundation, almost 36 million people are enslaved worldwide. They are usually trafficked to brothels, forced into manual labour or they are victims of debt bondage. Ending modern-day slavery is one of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

It’s challenging to try and fight human trafficking because these efforts vary depending on cultural interpretations, economics, and religion; which all make laws complicated to implement. Then there are issues of corruption, and different systems of justice that make the laws even more difficult to enforce.

The business of recruitment should be regulated, especially for companies that are recruiting locals to go and work abroad. The regulation should involve issuance of licenses to these firms after a thorough vetting process.

Persons travelling abroad for work should be put on notice of the possible dangers they are likely to face in the country they intend to travel to. The Middle East in particular should be one of the places where there is a red flag.

Ministries in charge of labour should be tasked to publish a list of products produced by child labour or forced labour. Government contractors should be held accountable for using foreign labor recruiters that use exploited labor. Law enforcement bodies should prevent and prosecute sex tourism.

Governments should start or continue to raise awareness about human trafficking, work to establish special anti-trafficking courts, and file and prosecute cases on the local level.

Governments now have a responsibility to allocate adequate budgets and design suitable policies to stop this modern day slavery of their citizens. Governments should now prioritise child-centred development goals should be prioritised and more holistic policies that interlink education, trafficking, slavery and child labour and violence against children should be devised. Somehow, those crimes are all connected. Governments must do everything in its power to stop child labour. In Brazil, for example mothers are given a monthly stipend if they withdraw their child from labour and enroll him or her in full-time education.

Governments should to increase their national and foreign aid budgets for activities related to children. This means more funds to be spent on education, health, the rescue and rehabilitation of child labourers and more money for enforcing the legal framework in relation to trafficking and slavery related issues

On an individual basis:

We must join the fight against human trafficking.

If you believe someone may be a victim of human trafficking, report to the relevant authorities. Trafficking victims, including undocumented individuals should be offered immigration assistance. They should not be prosecuted.


Offer human trafficking victims legal services, including support for those seeking benefits or special visas.


Provide jobs, internships, skills training, and other opportunities to trafficking survivors.

Be a conscientious and informed consumer. Companies are encouraged to take steps to investigate and prevent human trafficking in their supply chains and publish the information for consumer awareness.

Volunteer and support anti-trafficking efforts in your community by meeting with and or writing to your leaders and letting them know you care about combating human trafficking, and ask what they are doing to address it.


The media plays an enormous role in shaping perceptions and guiding the public conversation about human trafficking. Report on these issues. Expose the perpetrators of human trafficking.

Encourage your local schools to include modern day slavery in their curricula. As a parent, educator, or school administrator, be aware of how traffickers target school going children. Tell your children to watch out for suspicious persons.

Students: Take action on your campus. Join or establish a university club to raise awareness about human trafficking and initiate action throughout your local community. Consider doing one of your research papers on a topic concerning human trafficking. Request that human trafficking be included in university curricula.

Health Care Providers:

Learn how to identify the indicators of human trafficking and assist victims. With assistance from anti-trafficking organizations, extend low-cost or free services to human trafficking victims.

Work with a local religious community or congregation to help stop trafficking by supporting a victim service provider or spreading awareness of human trafficking.


Whereas it is not easy to draft or implement trafficking laws, and the effectiveness of the laws can be debated, endlessly. It’s however not an excuse not to do anything about it all. We must continue to make efforts at enforcing the laws and raising awareness about them. We must work toward the end of modern slavery, no matter how difficult and long the fight may be.




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