Eager to relieve discontent at home and faced with entrenched issues of governability, stretched resources and security threats from regional Islamist insurgencies, President Mahamadou Issoufou’s government signed a controversial labour agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) late last year. The KSA has a dubious record of protecting the rights of migrant workers whilst Niger remains a source, transit, and destination country for men, women and children trafficked into various forms of modern day slavery, including commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging, domestic servitude and forced manual labour in sectors like agriculture or mining.
Much of Niger’s issues with slavery remain firmly domestic, including an estimated 43,000 people held in so-called descent-based slavery. Human rights groups say that this traditional practice is particularly entrenched in Niger’s Tuareg, Berber Arab and Fulani ethnic groups. However cases of forced labour or exploitation can be found across the country and are not just limited to traditional cultural practices or certain parts of Nigerien society. Such a lax domestic atmosphere around labour rights combined with weak government controls and serious issues of governability now help to foster a climate of impunity for people traffickers taking labour overseas.
Campaigners have long warned of Niger’s status as a regional source of slaves, such as the practice of ‘Wahaya’ where women or girls of slave descent are sold as so-called ‘fifth wives’ to men from local ethnic groups living in Niger and neighboring Nigeria. These fifth wives are seen by wealthy men as a status symbol, and are used for domestic and agricultural tasks and forced to have sex with their masters, who also keep any children they bear. Niger has also long been used as a transit point for sub-Saharan migrants being trafficked north to Europe or north-east to the Middle East.
However the addressing the domestic problem of slavery in Niger is being complicated by the worrying rise of new forms of exploitation and forced labour driven by demand overseas. Last autumn Niger’s Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Security signed an agreement with the Saudi Manpower Solutions Company (SMASCO) after talks in Niger’s capital of Niamey. The agreement covered the recruitment of workers from Niger for jobs in Saudi Arabia, including roles for housekeepers, truck drivers, gardeners, nurses and cattlemen.
This is an issue because of the frequent reports which for years have raised concerns about the mistreatment of migrant workers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. Following negative publicity a number of countries have banned their nationals from working in the Kingdom. The Saudi record has raised alarm among migrant rights groups that Niger is simply repeating the experience of nearby Mauritania, whose government signed an agreement with the KSA to provide labour, only to be forced by adverse publicity into banning its nationals from working there after reports began to emerge of hundreds of Mauritanian nationals being mistreated or imprisoned by their employers.
While the conditions of Niger’s agreement with the KSA specified that its migrant workers are to be allowed free movement within Saudi Arabia, to keep their identity cards, and to give the female workers secure dormitories to live in, a warning by the Saudi Labour Ministry in June raises questions of how tightly the Kingdom supervises migrant workers’ employers in practice.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Falih, assistant undersecretary for inspection, warned Saudi citizens against the illegal recruitment of workers through social media, and using it for the provision of labour services or leasing of employment services to third parties. Recruitment of workers is theoretically only supposed to be done after obtaining a license from the Saudi Ministry of Labour and Social Employment. Meanwhile Saudi citizens interested in recruiting a domestic worker are only supposed to use the Ministry’s list of approved companies.
But in practice Saudi employers frequently bypass such official regulations and procedures while the idea that recruitment fees to workers are an investment to be recouped somehow has a strong cultural hold in Saudi minds. Rights groups have documented evidence of Facebook pages and groups being used for cross-border recruitment, of foreign workers transferred between employers in different Gulf countries to evade bans in their home countries on working in the KSA, and of some employers illegally renting out their workers during periods of high demand such as Ramadan.
Social media has become a particularly prominent marketplace for domestic workers over the past four years, and it has been recorded that some Instagram accounts ‘sell’ maids to other employers by arranging to transfer the workers’ visas to the online ‘buyer’. Nor is this the only dubious use of social media recorded in the GCC. In one Kuwaiti example from 2014 an Instagram account was used to post photographs of absconded maids and listed a telephone number for Kuwaiti citizens to share the maids’ pictures with one another over WhatsApp.
The account also listed instructions on how to trap the women in the country through reporting the case to the police rather than the maids’ recruitment agency. According to Kuwait’s employment laws absconding workers caught by the authorities can be forcibly returned to their sponsors or deported.
Recent reports from Mauritanian nationals to both civil society groups and their government’s law enforcement authorities highlighted the vulnerability of other West African nationals to exploitation and abuse in the KSA and indeed the wider GCC area. Yet Niger is even less governable and developed then Mauritania, ranking 188th on the UN Human Development Index, compared with Mauritania’s ranking of 156.
With many embassies reluctant to interfere in employer-employee relations abroad, and the Nigerien government’s record on the issue of slavery at home extremely mixed, Nigerien workers recruited for work in Saudi Arabia are at an especially high risk of abandonment should their employment situation turn against them.
While international attention has so far focused on maintaining Niger’s shaky democratic transition and helping President Mahamadou Issoufou’s regime contain the threat of regional Islamist insurgencies, agencies and donor governments should also investigate the situation of Niger’s workers once they start to return home at the end of their visas. Pressure should also be put on the KSA authorities to police Saudi employers more tightly. The protection of Nigeriens abroad could do a lot to improve the way the country treats its workers at home.