When a young South African barista got a job offer via facebook, he thought he had landed the job of a lifetime but he ended up being held captive and made to work long hours without pay.
30-year-old Athenkosi Dyonta while working at a café in the city of George, a popular holiday resort in South Africa’s Western Cape province like to show off his skills of latte art – the patterns and designs that are made with milky coffee with other passionate baristas from all over the world in an online group.
“There was nothing wrong about my work but I was just looking for better opportunities and a better salary,” he says.
The job offer was tempting and it came with a decent pay and accommodation, food and transport.
His visa was taken care of and all he had to do was pay for his flight ticket, a medical check-up and a Covid test.
Together with hia 28-year-old girlfriend Pheliswa Feni, Athenkosi borrowed money for his airfare, and he left for Oman in February 2021.
His first impressions of the country were positive. “It was so beautiful,” he was driven from the capital, Muscat, to a town called Ibra where he quarantined in a hotel for seven days.
“I thought: ‘All my dreams are coming true.'”
On arrival, he had been fitted with a tracking bracelet for the quarantine period.
Once that was over a doctor removed the tracker and he was moved to his new home. “It was just a dirty place – a small room, with a mattress and boxes,” said Athenkosi, who had to share the space with a man from Nepal.
It marked the beginning of an extremely distressing period as Athenkosi quickly learned that the café he thought he would be working didn’t exist, instead of serving coffee, he spent 12 to 14 hours a days working as a café cleaner.
When he wasn’t working he was locked in his shared room – the food was dire and he wasn’t being paid.
When Athenkosi asked his employer about pay he would be threatened – on one occasion he was taken to a forest where a group of men shouted at him to stop causing trouble.
Pheliswa stayed in touch with her boyfriend over the phone: “I was very scared because I thought maybe they would kill him.” Athenkosi also says his employer threatened to take him to the police.
They said “the police would arrest me because I signed a contract”, he says.
What he hadn’t realised was that he had entered a sponsorship agreement used in parts of the Middle East called “kafala” – which gives private citizens and companies almost total control over a migrant worker’s employment and immigration status.
Rights groups say the system leaves workers highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation as they are unable to change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s consent.
After he attempted to take his own life, Athenkosi was advised his only way out was to pay a fee for what was termed a “breach of contract” fee.
His girlfriend back in South Africa swung into action, mobilising the entire George community about Athenkosi’s situation, a “Bring Back Athenkosi” Facebook page was created and T-shirts were printed.
A local group called The George Community Forum stepped in to help with fundraising. Donations poured in, and Athenkosi’s family also sold one of their 10 cows for about $800 (£600).
The Omani employer then upped the figure, saying it wasn’t enough to cover the food and lodging.
In total more than 23,000 rand (£1,200) was paid for Athenkosi’s release.
When he stepped out of the arrivals door in George in April, he was greeted by dozens of people who had helped secure his release.
“I was so excited… to see family, friends,” he says. Athenkosi is now back at his old barista job.
But he is also struggling to come to terms with his experience.
“I am traumatised emotionally. I can’t forget about it.”