Spotlight interview with Moulkheiry Sidiel Moustapha (CGTM-Mauritania)

“Combating silence and impunity in order to help migrant domestic workers”

Vice-president of the women’s committee and president of the General Confederation of Mauritanian Workers’ (CGTM) migration and surveillance committee, Moulkheiry Sidiel Moustapha speaks out against the exploitation to which female migrant domestic workers are victim. Emphasizing the links with the issues of human smuggling, trafficking and forced labour, she explains the awareness-raising, training, social welfare and legal defence work undertaken via the CGTM’s centre for migrants in Nouakchott (1).

Where do the female migrant workers present in Mauritania come from?

They come from countries such as Senegal, Mali, Guinea Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Niger and Togo. Most of them arrive by road, often having suffered severe harassment and sometimes having crossed several borders. They leave their country of origin under difficult conditions, via intermediaries who promise that they’ll ‘get rich quick’ in Mauritania, in order to fund their journeys further towards Europe. But very soon they run into problems with their employers.

Are there any cases that could be labelled as human trafficking?

Yes, especially in our work with female domestic workers, it is essential to consider the dimension of human smuggling, trafficking and forced labour. In September 2009, in the premises of the Nouakchott centre for migrants, we organized a trade union seminar on forced labour and human trafficking within the context of the migration of female domestic workers. Twenty-five women from eight different countries participated actively in this seminar, alongside several migrants’ associations and the CGTM women’s movement. It was with a great deal of emotion that we heard testimonies from several young girls who had been gravely exploited, such as that of the 25-year-old Guinean, Binta Barry. In Guinea, it was a friend who offered her the chance to come and work in Mauritania, in order to help her sick father. But once she arrived in Mauritania without any papers, this close friend abandoned her to a Cameroonian trafficker who inflicted all kinds of abuse on her. Many migrant women find themselves at the mercy of the networks who looked after them on their arrival and to whom they must then repay large sums of money. A surveillance committee has been set up, of which I am president, tasked with establishing a work plan and a partnership with the other civil society participants who are active in the issues of trafficking and forced labour with regard to female domestic workers.

At work, what types of problem do these female migrant workers encounter?

Extremely low or non-payment of wages, poor treatment, confinement, withholding of food and medical care, excessively long working hours, harassment and rape by their bosses… there are very many problems.
To give an idea of the salaries of these migrant workers, we are familiar with the case of a woman who had been working in a hairdresser’s, from the morning until ten at night for three years, for a monthly salary of only 10,000 ouguiya (approximately US$ 38). Or that of an underpaid teacher employed with the status of assistant teacher even though she does the same job as the teachers at the French school, she earns only 3000 ouguiya ($264), compared to the 60,000 earned by the native French teachers ($5280), in other words, twenty times less! But the worst situations involve female migrant domestic workers. They are completely invisible, on the one hand because they are foreigners and on the other, because their workplace is hidden from view, with no legal recognition and most of the time, without status or contract. Increasingly often, they are obliged to sleep at their place of work. This may save them the cost of renting a room, but they don’t have a proper place to sleep, they often have to make do with a corner in the kitchen and are required to be available around the clock. They are even woken up in the middle of the night. We have received reports of beatings by some Mauritanian families when domestic workers dare to demand payment of their late salaries or refuse to carry out excessive quantities of tasks that were not mentioned in a verbal contract. In the embassies, we have been told of some truly unacceptable situations. In particular, two cases of women working double shifts for an extremely low salary. But the contract is signed between the intermediary and the embassy, without the Senegalese woman being involved in the contract. She is ignorant of the actual salary mentioned in the contract, which the intermediary receives, but she cannot leave the job as she has to support her children, who have remained back home.

In what concrete ways can the CGTM centre for migrants help these migrant workers?

The migration centre is the ideal place of welcome for these women. Right in the centre of town, it is open 24/7. Just like the men, most of the women who come here ask first and foremost for assistance in finding what little employment they can to feed themselves. They come from all sectors: such as domestic service, small businesses, hairdressing and catering. There are even some teachers who come to Mauritania hoping to find a salary two to three times higher than that which they can hope for in their country of origin. The important thing is to make contact and talk with these women. Some are immediately open, others take more time. Some have confided in us about such terrible experiences that they have made everybody, both the men and women present, cry. The psychological dimension is extremely significant, some live under intense fear of their employers, they need to be helped to overcome this fear in order to demand their rights, by taking their cases to the labour inspectorate.

Are you in contact with any migrant associations?

In recent months, we have begun to raise awareness among the communities from Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Burkina Faso and Togo. We are working with the associations set up in Mauritania by the nationals of these countries. To have established relationships with the various migrant associations is an essential step for us. We have given them leaflets presenting simple information about rights, contact persons and so on. We also organize meetings in the places where the various communities come together in everyday life. We have created a steering committee with the women representing these eight communities. They are our points of contact with the rest of the groups. For the moment, we are targeting Nouakchott and Nouadhibou but we would also like to reach Rosso, on the border with Senegal. In addition to providing information and raising awareness about legislation and their rights, we would also like to open an office that records employers and employees, in order to break the silence and combat impunity. The main obstacle is silence, the authorities seem unaware of the issue. First of all we need to successfully gather the information, then we can present the problem to the labour inspectorate and if necessary, to the labour court. Expatriates who exploit domestic workers are extremely sensitive about their image; they don’t by any means like being dragged before the courts.

What are you demanding at legislative level?

Domestic workers, which includes women and girls who are sometimes very young, are a vital link in the economic chain of the country. But their work is not recognized by the law, which opens the door to all manner of abuse. Coupled with an absence of statistics and a lack of political will, this legal vacuum complicates the issue of protecting the rights of these workers, who are also disadvantaged due to a lack of training. Working conditions must be regulated and monitored, with civil and penal sanctions on hand. Internationally, trade union pressure for a new ILO convention on domestic workers is extremely important in order to provide them with the recognition and protection that are cruelly lacking.

Interview by Natacha David

(1) Within the framework of the Special Action Programme to defend the rights of migrant workers, and as part of its efforts to strengthen South/South trade union solidarity, the ITUC has launched three partnership agreements between affiliates in different regions. With the support of LO/TCO-Sweden, these three pilot projects have been set up between Indonesia (SPSI) and Malaysia (MTUC); Nicaragua (CST, CUS, CUSa) and Costa Rica (CTNR); and Mauritania (CGTM) and Senegal (CNTS). Information and support centres for migrant workers have been set up in Malaysia by the TUC, in Mauritania by the CGTM and in Costa Rica by the CTRN.

 See the complete report on the Mauritania/Senegal bilateral trade union project, Mauritania-Senegal Defending the rights of migrants (16 pages)

 See the interview with Mamadou Niang (CGTM-Mauritania) "We want to give migrants the tools they need to defend their rights"

 See the interview with N’diouga Wade (CNTS-Senegal) “Faced with the tragedy of irregular migration, people must be informed and given alternative employment opportunities,"

 See the interview withFatou Bintou Yaffa (CNTS-Senegal), "Training is a priority objective for improving the situation of domestic workers"

 For more information on the project in Malaysia supported by the ITUC, please consult the interview with G. Rajasekaran (MTUC) "By helping migrant workers, we are also helping Malaysian workers"

 For more information on the project in Costa Rica supported by the ITUC, please consult the Union View report, "Helping migrants organise"