A young South African barista thought he had found a lifelong job in Oman, but ended up in captivity and forced to work without pay – forcing his family and friends to raise money to free him.
The offer came via Facebook when 30-year-old Athenkosi Dyonta was working at a coffee shop in George, a popular holiday resort in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
“There was nothing wrong with my work but I was just looking for better opportunities and a better salary,” he says.
Athenkosi used to share his latte art – patterns and designs made with latte – with other passionate baristas from around the world in an online group.
This is where a woman approached me with a job offer in Oman.
He was seductive: in addition to a decent salary, he received free housing, food and transportation.
She said his visa would be taken care of – all he had to do was pay for a plane ticket, a medical exam and a Covid test.
“I thought when he came back in a year or so, we’d buy ourselves a house,” recalls his girlfriend, Philisois Feeney, 28, with whom he has two children.
“We lived in shacks, so I thought maybe there was a house…and then maybe a car, maybe take our kids to better schools.”
So the couple borrowed money to buy a ticket for Athenkosi, and he left for Oman in February.
His first impressions of the country were positive. “she was very beautiful,” The Comb . podcast said.
He was transferred from the capital, Muscat, to a town called Ibra, where he was isolated in a hotel for seven days.
I thought, ‘All my dreams come true. “
Upon his arrival, he was provided with a tracking bracelet for the period of quarantine.
Once that was over, the doctor removed the tracker and moved it to his new home – an alarming sight.
“It was just a dirty place – a small room with a mattress and boxes,” said Athenkosi, who had to share space with a man from Nepal.
Threats, no salary
It was the beginning of a very sad period as Athenkosi quickly realized that the coffeehouse he had thought he was going to work in did not exist.
Instead of serving coffee, he would spend 12 to 14 hours a day working as a cafe cleaner elsewhere.
When he wasn’t working, he was locked in his common room – the food was bad and he wasn’t getting paid.
“I got skinny there. I would have bread and milk – sometimes a roll with an egg – maybe once or twice a day.
“I wasn’t getting paid, I was just working.”
When Athenkosi asked his employer for his wages, he was threatened – and on one occasion taken to a forest where a group of men yelled at him to stop causing trouble.
Felicia kept in touch with her boyfriend by phone: “I was so 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 will arrest me because I signed a contract,” he said.
What he didn’t realize was that he had entered into a sponsorship agreement used in parts of the Middle East called “kafala” – which gives citizens and businesses near-total control over the status of migrant workers and immigration.
Rights groups say the system leaves workers extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because they are unable to change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s consent.
One day, about a month later, Athenkosi saw that the door to his room had been left open and tried to escape to the parking lot where he asked a stranger to take him to the police station.
But once he got there, none of the officers spoke English – and he was told he would need to wait three hours for an interpreter to arrive.
Instead, he rushed back to his room, fearing he’d get in trouble for leaving.
Returning to work, with long hours and one day off on Fridays, Athena began to despair: “I was feeling so bad that I decided to die rather than live like this.”
He attempted suicide and ended up recovering in the hospital where he confided to a doctor, who explained that the only way to escape was to pay his employer money.
So he contacted his employer about this – they agreed to let him leave if he paid a so-called “breach of contract” fee.
Felisua, who was already in debt for the ticket, started working to raise money: “I told everyone I could tell, I sent it to every WhatsApp number I had.”
As news spread within George’s community about Athenkosi’s situation, a Facebook page called “Re-Athenkosi” was created and T-shirts were printed.
A local group called The George Community Forum stepped in to help raise funds. Donations poured in, and the Athenkosi family also sold one of their 10 cows for $800 (£577).
Then the Omani employer raised the figure, saying it was not enough to cover food and housing.
In total, more than 23,000 rand ($1,500; £1,200) was paid for Athenkosi’s release.
When he walked out of George’s access door in April, he was greeted by dozens of people who helped secure his release.
“I was so excited…to see family and friends,” he says.
It’s been nearly four months since Athenkosi came home and is now back at his old job as a barista.
But he also struggles to come to terms with his experience.
“I’m emotionally traumatized. I can’t forget her.”
Listen to Athenkosi Deonta’s interview on The Comb podcast: Job scam.