Ethiopia’s government plans to send half a million female domestic workers to Saudi Arabia

Ethiopia’s government plans to send half a million female domestic workers to Saudi Arabia
April 29, 2012. Mohamed Azakir/Reuters.


Sophie Flemming

Women’s Rights Researcher,

Global Human Rights Defence.


Ethiopian citizens have been working in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Lebanon since the 80’s which was arranged by Ethiopian recruitment agencies or human traffickers. During the pandemic, the sending of Ethiopians for domestic or construction work came to a pause (Zelalem, 2023). But recently, the Saudi government has heightened efforts to increase the supply of domestic workers and reduce recruitment costs (Migrant-Rights, 2023). Now the Ethiopian government plans to send 500.000 women as domestic workers to Saudi Arabia and is organising the whole process from recruitment and advertisement by itself. The government made calls on Facebook and billboards in towns for women to register for employment in Saudi Arabia at their offices and they organised orientation sessions. The government wants to use their strong diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia to create economic gain through remittances. Potential employees are being told that this is “an opportunity of a lifetime” since they may earn about 266$ which is more than most jobs in Ethiopia give (Zelalem, 2023).

But at these sessions, the government does not speak about the history of abuses and exploitation of Ethiopian workers in Saudi Arabia. The government ensures that the salary and wellbeing of their citizens will be secured, especially through the regulation of migration. State officials say that they protect Ethiopian women from the danger of migrating on foot through Yemen (Zelalem, 2023).

Firstly, Saudi Arabia is known to treat informal migrants inhumane by abuses and beatings in detention facilities. In an Amnesty International Report it was revealed that pregnant women and children were held in unbearable conditions which resulted in two children dying. Migrants are being arrested and detained because of expired residence permits (AlJazeera, 2020).

Secondly, migrant workers are likely to be exploited due to the Kafala System that binds the employees to their employers legally. In this way, workers are excluded from Saudi Arabia’s labour laws and they lose their documented status if they flee from their employer, even in the case of abuse. The Kafala system is therefore often compared to modern slavery (Zelalem, 2023). In former negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia over terms of employment, cooperation was not possible due to disagreements regarding contract obligations, minimum wages and working conditions. It is not transparent if these issues have been resolved but the recruitment fee was capped at 1,837$ (Migrant-Rights, 2023) which is basically a good initiative because with high recruitment costs a sense of “ownership” of the worker can be fostered. It can also justify wage theft and exacerbate poor working conditions as Saudi families are enticed to over-work one worker instead of hiring two. Nevertheless, while the recruitment payment plan is regulated, workers' wages are not and the above-mentioned benefits of regulated costs are then likely to be lost (Migrant-Rights b, 2023).

            In the end, many human rights organisations are concerned about this move and fear exploitation of the recruited women (Freedom United, 2023). Nadia Hardman, a researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Refugee and Migrants Rights Division said that “Ethiopian authorities should be seeking to ensure full protections, including the dismantling of the Kafala System that traps migrants to abusive employers (...) they shouldn’t be pushing women into migrating with false guarantees of protection” (Zelalem, 2023).


Sources and further reading

AlJazeera (October 2, 2020). Ethiopian migrants held in Saudi Arabia call it ‘hellish’. Retrieved on April 25, from 

Freedom United (April 17, 2023). Ethiopia's recruitment drive into domestic servitude? Retrieved on April 28, from


Migrant-Rights (March 25, 2023). Saudi Arabia resumes recruitment of domestic workers from Ethiopia. Retrieved on April 25, from

Migrant Rights b (February 2, 2023). Saudi Arabia caps the cost of recruiting domestic workers of certain nationalities. Retrieved on April 28, from

Zelalem, Z. (April 17, 2023). Ethiopia recruits 500,000 women for domestic work in Saudi Arabia. Retrieved on April 25, from