Sophie's journey: Three countries, three stories, same abuse

Published 18 July 2016 / By Emel Coşkun

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Female migrant labourers face discrimination and marginalisation all over the world. Sophie’s stories from Dubai, Turkey and Saudi Arabia can tell us a lot about their experiences.

Sophie was looking tired when I met her in Kampala in January 2016. We had last met the summer before in Turkey when she told me her employer had refused to pay her wages. I offered to help her make an official complaint but she just shrugged and said "Forget about it - nothing will come of it except for trouble.”

In Uganda, she told me how she had finally made it home but as we talked I realised that her trouble in Turkey was only one stage of a journey of exploitation that had also taken her to Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Sophie’s depressingly similar experience in three countries over five years shows how gender and international migration regimes can conspire against migrant workers.

From house wife to breadwinner

Sophie’s life had always been a tough one. At 17 she married a man who promised to support her to study but after three children and still no education, Sophie had enough. She left her children and funded herself to College level where she qualified as a masseuse. "This therapy job fed my children and took them through school" she says. But things were still hard and when a client in Kampala offered her a job in Dubai, she took the chance:

The client paid for my visa, ticket everything... but when I reached Dubai it was a different story. I understood then that she was a prostitute. She picked me from the airport to one of the rooms she rented to a group of prostitutes. I asked how much I would have to pay back to her because I had to send money to my children. She told me that I'd work for her for 2 months... I was a housemaid. I was always waiting for them, cooking nice African food and ready to open the door if the Police were chasing them. We started selling food and then, I started doing massage in the house. I was making a lot of money for her, may be US$10,000 for two months. I was doing everything... house work, massage, food.

But Sophie’s employer wanted more and tried to make her to sell sex. She refused – and that’s when the mistreatment began. “I tried to find another job for myself in Dubai but my visa was finished and I couldn’t find a thing”. So after three months she left Dubai having earned just enough to cover the fine for overstaying her visa.

"I don't mind working hard if I am getting money"

Back in Uganda and back where she’d started, Sophie still faced the pressure of needing to support her children and she still lacked the money necessary to start her business. So she decided to migrate again. This time, her destination was Turkey, where she’d heard that one could earn as much as $350 a month. “I don't mind working hard if I’m getting money”, she said. She decided not to use an intermediary or an agent and raised more than $2000 to get to Turkey on her own.

People at the airport in Istanbul ask for $200 to look after you for the first weeks. They’re mostly Ugandans and it was a street woman who received me. If they find you a job, you give them $50 and you have to pay for the transportation card, food, etc. Everything costs money and work is scarce.

Sophie’s first job was in a textile factory. She worked for two months, nine hours a day, six days a week. It was hard. “Even staying in the toilet for too long was not allowed”, she said. She was paid for only two weeks of her work: “they said we shall pay...we shall pay...but they never did”. Employers take advantage of newcomers who know nothing about working in Turkey, don’t speak Turkish, and don’t have work permits.

When I met Sophie, she had been in Istanbul for couple of months and in her second factory. Sophie was getting paid her but she only had a few hours work a week. She decided to find another job and, through friends, she found a massage job in the tourist city of Antalya. Again, she worked for two months without pay.

He did not pay at all because he knows that I was far from Istanbul and would not go anywhere. I had no work permit so I had no rights. After 2 months I left to work with another woman but I had already made up my mind to go home. I was going back to Uganda in 3 months. I thought let me try to work here and make some money so I worked with them. I made 250 euro, 100 dollar and 200 lira.

Getting a work permit in Turkey is a long and difficult bureaucratic process. Employers must apply for migrant workers before they arrive in Turkey or after they are granted a six months resident visa. The lack of a work permit creates discrimination that suits many employers as undocumented migrant workers are too vulnerable to claim their rights. Black migrants also face discrimination on grounds of race and Sophie faced racism everywhere she worked. She explains:

The Russian guests don't like blacks, but Germans are OK and Danish too. All the staff expect you to clean up the place although we were all colleagues, they were masseuses and so was I. I had the same pay as women workers from Russia and Georgia, but as a black worker I had to do the cleaning.

She stayed 11 months in Turkey. She saved nothing more than the exit fine for overstaying her visa, again.

The Journey to Saudi Arabia

Back in Uganda, Sophie struggled to find a good job, so she decided to take another chance and go to Saudi Arabia as a housemaid. This time she used an agency who didn’t ask for money upfront. All her expenses, except for the medical report to prove she is not HIV+, were paid by the agency. Sophie describes this third migration as like slavery with the agencies, licensed by the Saudi government, as little more than mechanisms for worker exploitation. Sophie explains:

Arab families pay a lot of money to get a housemaid and they claim the money back if the housemaid doesn't stay long. As a maid you have no voice, the deal is between the agency and the family. The broker who takes you are doesn't tell you what is waiting for you because they are just looking at the money. The agency pays you and you have a contract with the agency but it is fake. For example, the contract might say you work for 9 hours per day but it is not true.

When she arrived in Riyadh she was kept in a hostel and taught how to clean. She was also given some basic orientation and some Arabic words. The hostels were “like a prison”, with people locked inside. “They give you a profile picture and you are on the computer – they sell you through the computer. They give you a uniform and hijab and then they pass you out”.

Sophie worked for a family for 3 weeks before she had to leave:

The smaller apartment had 6 or 7 rooms and a big living room. You are mopping the floor, cleaning everything. When you finished working there, they lend you to other family members. They have married sons and daughters and you also work for them. You eat after everyone else and they don’t think if you have eaten anything. People have collapsed - starved and collapsed! You receive $150 but you never know how much the family pays the agency.

Sophie felt like a “slave” and lacked for sleep and food. She wanted out but leaving meant breaking her contract. “I told the family and the agency that I wasn’t well. The agency was pushing me to stay and they wanted to just dump me in another hostel”. She managed to get back to Uganda but only by paying the agency off. So again, she made nothing from her trip.

Being a female migrant worker

Sophie is a strong woman. She was unafraid to tell her story and refused to keep quiet about her experiences. Partly because she went public, the Ugandan government has banned businesses sending maids to Saudi Arabia but, as Sophie says, the trade has just gone underground and Ugandans are now being smuggled across borders. Outlawing the agents has done nothing to alter the fact that poor people seeking to earn money through migration have to risk of precarious, undocumented lifestyles and many forms of exploitation.

Sophie had hoped migration would allow her to earn capital to start a business that would support her kids. But she’s worked in three different countries and has been exploited in all of them. Agents, brokers, smugglers and employers have all made money from her labour while she’s never made more than the fine to pay her way out and return home.

On the face of it she has ‘failed’ as a migrant but she has been a victim of unequal social relations that separate migrants from citizens and which are continually reinforced by immigration and labour market controls. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Dubai share migration regimes that maintain an uneven playing field and keep migrants expendable. These regimes create highly precarious migrant groups who can be exploited by various third parties. In all three different countries women like Sophie are abused because of their gender and their race. Migrant women are mostly employed as domestic workers, waitresses, sweatshop workers or prostitutes where local assumptions about their gender and race imagine they belong.

Sophie is now working for a hotel in Kampala as a masseuse. She works 10-12 hours per day. She is happy: "I am working really hard but I feel at home." She still dreams of opening a massage salon in Kampala and she’s still looking for the capital she needs.

About the author: Emel Coşkun is an assistant professor of sociology at Düzce University, Turkey. She received her PhD in Migration Studies at the University of Kent in 2013. Her research interests relate to the experiences of women migrants; gendered migration flows; undocumented migration; prostitution and migration politics. Her recent articles focus on sex trafficking and undocumented women migrants in Turkey.

This blog was originally posted on Open Democracy, 14 July 2016.