By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tanzania has suspended about a quarter of its recruitment agencies in a bid to crackdown on human trafficking after complaints that girls sent as domestic servants to the Middle East were used as sex slaves and forced to work without pay.
Tanzania has been identified internationally as a source country for domestic and trans-national trafficking of girls and boys who can end up sexually exploited and in forced labor.
Human rights groups have voiced concerns that trafficking is often facilitated by recruitment agencies, family members and intermediaries who lure people with promises of lucrative jobs but trap them in domestic servitude and prostitution.
Despite stringent anti-trafficking laws in the east African nation, the exploitation of girls continues unabated, according to activists, with the government accused of not doing enough to stop both internal and trans-national trafficking.
Under mounting pressure, Seperatus Fella, secretary of the government's Anti-Trafficking Secretariat, said the government this week suspended 70 job agencies after receiving complaints about exploitation in the Middle East.
There are 300 job agencies in Tanzania, according to the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Youth Development, with Tanzanian housemaids particularly popular in Oman due to historic links.
"Most of these girls and boys are subjected to commercial sex or work as domestic servants and barmaids, with some sent on forced labor in factories, farms and mines under very poor conditions," Fella told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The International Labor Organization estimates there are 21 million people globally in forced labor or trafficked, including 5.5 million children.
CALLS FOR ACTION
Tanzania's move comes after a 2014 report on human trafficking by the U.S. Department of State accused Tanzania of not making enough progress in addressing the problem.
The U.S. report said the exploitation of girls in domestic servitude was Tanzania's largest human trafficking problem although cases of child trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation were increasing on the Kenya-Tanzania border.
The Tanzanian government defended its lack of action by saying human trafficking is a complex multinational business which is difficult to control but its decision to suspend some employment agencies was welcomed by some campaigners.
Dar es Salaam's Legal and Human Rights Center said recruitment agents often charge girls between 1000,000 and 2000,000 Tanzanian shillings ($470-$940) for transport costs and fees but they often don't know what job they are going to.
Swaumu Ali, 23, a housemaid, found work in Saudi Arabia through a recruitment agency but returned recently after she found herself being used as a sex slave. She urged other women to speak out when they end up being abused.
"When I arrived in Oman, I didn't know what was going on, but I ended up being a sex slave. My male employer and his grown-up relatives used me as they pleased," Ali told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Ali said she was forced to work for 18 hours a day on domestic chores and caring for her employer's elderly parent. When she asked for her salary her boss refused to pay her and her passport and mobile telephone were confiscated.
"They considered me a prostitute so I was kept in servant quarters away from the main house," said Ali, who left after a neighbor notified Tanzanian embassy officials of her situation.
Tanzania's 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Person Act outlaws all trafficking with punishments of one to 10 years in jail, a fine of 1-30 million Tanzanian shillings, or both.
Critics, however, say these penalties are not commensurate with other serious crimes and not an adequate deterrent.
Said Kilufya, whose B&B Agency is one of those suspended, protested the government move, saying they were not consulted.
"I don't think it is fair to ban organizations which are operating legally without giving them a chance to defend themselves for the alleged offences," he said.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)