Labour trafficking is described as the use of force, fraud or coercion in order to induce a person to work or provide services.

According to the 2023 Global Slavery Index out of 50 million people living in modern day slavery seven million of them live in Africa. The French colonial administration declared an end to slavery in Mauritania in 1905 yet it was only until 1981 that the country abolished the practice through a Presidential decree, It was the last country in the world to abolish slavery.

Meanwhile in Ethiopia, the 1942 decree issued by Emperor Haile Selassie would prove rather ineffective as slave owning aristocrats would continue to keep slaves until the Marxist Leninist Provisional Military Administrative Council toppled the emperor in 1974. The African continent continues to be plagued by the scourge of labour trafficking as desperate people continue to be lured away from their countries of origin only to find themselves trapped in foreign lands where they are often exploited and or abused.

Promises of better job opportunities have replaced the whips and chains used by the Arabs and Europeans of days gone by. eSwatini seems not to be an exception as the country. Themba Fakudze* (not his real name) is a security guard in his late twenties and described to The Bridge how he was approached by a foreign national with a seemingly straightforward request.

The man claimed to hail from Ethiopia asked Fakudze if he knew of any young lady who was looking for employment. The first name which sprung to his mind was that of his younger sister, an unemployed university graduate. “He offered to pay her E2000 per month to assist his brother and his wife who had recently welcomed a newborn baby,” narrated Fakudze.

Naturally intrigued, Fakudze enquired where this couple resided. “I was told that they lived in South Africa, though it was not clear in which city or town.” He consulted a relative who works in neighbouring South Africa and received a stern warning to distance himself from the Ethiopian in question. The relative pointed out that E2000 was far less than the South African minimum wage for domestic workers.

Secondly, the Ethiopian couple’s apparently benign offer to provide Fakudze´s sister with food and lodgings could be a ploy to ensure that she would practically be on duty seven days a week, as and when deemed necessary by her employers. The Bridge investigation led us to Qinsile Dlamini, a young lady who was lured to Bloemfontein to work for an Ethiopian couple.

Once in Bloemfontein, she would soon learn that E2000 would not be enough to sustain her in the Republic of South Africa, let alone her younger siblings on the outskirts of Manzini. She was working without a work permit which was bound to be cause for concern for a Swati living in Bloemfontein. Working conditions were at best described as nightmarish, sharing an apartment with her employers meant that she was deprived of privacy and her every move was monitored.

Dlamini eventually managed to return home vowing never to fall victim to this scam again. Unscrupulous people are preying on emaSwati who have literally been reduced to second class citizen status in the country of their birth. Scenes of African asylum seekers being rescued from sinking vessels in the Mediterranean Sea often seem a world away, while in reality countless emaSwati risk their lives and dignity in search of means to support themselves and their families.

As Fakudze noted, South Africa is not the only place where desperate young women are being exploited. Thandzile Simelane on the other hand was offered a place by what seemed a respectable couple. The husband is a medical professional in Manzini while the wife operates a shop. “I was offered a job which included household chores, as well shop assistant duties, for which I was paid E1300.”

Young and naïve, she gladly accepted their logic that this was a fair wage. “The wife repeatedly pointed out that they were giving me a fair wage since I would not have to pay rent or spend as much as I would on groceries had I not lived with them". The silver lining could not conceal the dark clouds forever. She struggled to cope with juggling what were in essence two jobs.

She was humiliated in front of her colleagues for eating at the shop amid allegations that she could have done so at the house. “They (the couple) behave like model Christian’s in public, but the truth is another story," she narrated her ordeal almost teary. The final straw came when she was reprimanded and insulted for going home to attend to a sick child instead of assisting the couple's adult child who was suffering from a mystery illness.

One of my colleagues was a comrade, the others used to warn me not to listen to those “political ideas" but the comrade was proven right. I did not know my rights as an employee, I did not know that I was entitled to time off or overtime. Everyone else either feared for their own jobs or behaved as if they were amused by my suffering.

When asked if she had reported the matter Simelane, like Fakudze and Dlamini said she had not, which is sadly exactly what labour traffickers thrive on. Victims often suffer in silence. The three young people we spoke to seem to believe that speaking out about these matters would be a futile exercise despite the fact that the government has made an attempt to adjust domestic worker’s wages.

The eSwatini 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report notes that the government does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. It notes that such efforts included establishing multi-agency emergency response teams (ERTs) to respond to trafficking victim identification.

However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity. Lack of government coordination and effective leadership of the Prevention of People Trafficking and Smuggling Secretariat (Secretariat) continued to hinder trafficking efforts,” reads the report in part.

The report accuses the government of not allocating funding for the Prevention of People Trafficking and People Smuggling Task Force (Task Force) to coordinate anti-trafficking efforts. The report also reveals that there are serious allegations of trafficking and abuse of trafficking victims by senior government officials in protection roles remained pending prosecution for multiple years.

The first shelter for victims of trafficking and GBV refurbished in a collaborative effort with foreign donor-support remained inoperable for the second consecutive year. Therefore eSwatini remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year. Government spokesperson Alpheous Nxumalo referred us to the Disaster office when called today but no one picked up from the office.

*Not real names to protect victims