The Kenyan government has launched a crackdown on rogue employment agencies in an attempt to curb the exploitation and abuse of its migrant workers in Gulf countries.
In response to the alarming number of cases involving the mistreatment of Kenyans abroad, on 29 September the government revoked the licenses of 930 agencies recruiting Kenyans to work in the Middle East.
Labour Cabinet Secretary Kazungu Kambi also announced the temporary ban of the recruitment of workers to the region.
From now on, all private employment agencies will have to undergo strict auditing before acquiring new licences.
“[This] will enable the government to put in place adequate structures for the effective management of labour migration and the protection of our migrant workers,” Kambi told reporters.
Conservative figures put the number of Kenyan nationals currently working in Gulf countries such as Dubai, Qatar and United Arab Emirates at 100,000, but the true figure could be much higher.
Most Kenyan migrants are employed as domestic workers and are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, violence, rape and even murder.
It is a situation that Janet (not her real name) knows all too well.
When the 32-year-old mother-of-two was offered a well-paid job as a domestic worker in Dubai, she jumped at the chance to earn enough money to take care of her family.
She acquired a passport for the first time in her life, paid about US$112 (10,000 Kenyan shillings) to the agency for visa-processing and another US$44 (KSh 4,000) in agency fees.
In a country where roughly 45 per cent of the population lives on less than US$1.25 a day, this amounts to a small fortune.
But instead of going to Dubai, as her contract had stipulated, she was sent to the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
There her nightmare began.
On arrival, she and 10 other girls were met by a local man.
“We were driven somewhere to an old house that looked badly kept. About 20 other girls were already in there. We would later learn that many of them were from Nigeria,” she said.
Confused as to why she was in Riyadh rather than Dubai she confronted the agent.
“I asked him when I would be going to Dubai, but he just shouted at me and pushed me out of the way.
“Later I used my cellphone to call my agent back in Kenya, asking him why I had been taken to Saudi Arabia. But he told me to either get to work or get back home.”
The next morning, Janet was surprised to see various men coming into the house. They were buying the women from the local agent.
Tearfully, she recalls: “I was sold for a few Saudi riyals to a man who looked at me and touched me everywhere, before counting the cash.
“I was taken to a home and locked up in a chicken coop for three days without food. After that I was pushed into an outside open shower and told to wash.”
Janet was forced to work long hours as a domestic worker under degrading and abusive conditions.
“I was beaten up and I was forced to work 16 hours a day – sometimes longer. Some of the things they did to me I cannot say here.”
One day when her employers were out of the house, she managed to escape. This was after three months of what can only be described as slavery. Janet was never paid.
She eventually managed to return home thanks to the help of a small Kenyan human rights group, set up by the Kenyan politician James Nyoro, which helps to repatriate stranded migrants.
Janet has since gone into hiding for fear of retribution by her Kenyan employment agency after she was threatened for speaking out in public about her ordeal.
Thankfully, Janet has lived to tell her tale. Eunice Wanjiku didn’t.
Tortured to death
Like Janet, the 38-year-old mother-of-one left Kenya for Saudi Arabia on 4 April 2012 in search of greener pastures.
Three months into her work, Eunice would often call her family and complain about being mistreated by her Saudi employer.
A year later, her elderly parents – who barely make a living doing piece work in rural central Kenya – lost contact with their beloved daughter.
Months of agony and uncertainty ensued – until one day they received a phone call from the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nairobi.
“I thought my daughter had finally made enough money and she had found a way of sending it back for our upkeep and that of her teenage daughter,” her father, John Chege Kahiga, told Equal Times.
But officials broke the news that his daughter had “committed suicide”, an account given by her Saudi employer.
Her family were devastated – but unconvinced. The suicide theory did not fit their daughter’s outgoing character – or Eunice’s persistent complaints of mistreatment.
The fact that Saudi authorities were reluctant to release her body further raised their suspicions.
After three months Eunice’s body finally returned home; her eyes had been gouged out and she had bruises all over her body.
An autopsy revealed she had been strangled and tortured to death.
To date, no-one has been charged for Eunice’s brutal death and her heartbroken family are desperate for answers.
“How cruel can people be? Why would you torture and kill a young woman who was only trying to make her life and her child’s life better?” demanded Kahiga tearfully.
But as shocking as Eunice’s death is, it is not an isolated incident.
Scores of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia have been murdered or maimed by their employers.
And in 2013, the Kenyan embassy in Riyadh rescued more than 800 Kenyans languishing in Saudi jails.
Many more cannot be accounted for by their families.
As a result, the Kenyan government’s plans to enhance the protection of migrant workers in the Gulf have been met with approval by Kenyans who are fed up of hearing tragic stories like that of Janet and Eunice.
Amina Mohammed, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, told Equal Times that following the licence revocations and the suspension of migrant worker recruitment to the Middle East, the government is now trying establish proper structures to educate and document all citizens before they leave Kenya to work abroad.
“We want to ensure that no Kenyan who immigrates to these countries in the hope of earning a better living is exploited by rogue employers. We want to seal these existing loopholes,” she said.
According to Kenyan National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale, Kenya’s parliament is working on a policy document that will outline the standard measures required to safeguard Kenyan migrant workers before they leave the country and while abroad.
“It will be ready by November and it will safeguard Kenyans against exploitation and abuse,” he told Equal Times.
But local campaigners have dismissed these efforts as “piecemeal” saying they will do little to protect workers in a region where rights for migrant workers are almost non-existent.
The kafala system
Employment contracts involving migrant workers in the Middle East are based on the ancient Bedouin principle of kafala.
What was once essentially a code of hospitality – that encouraged families to host travelling strangers and treat them as one of their own – has evolved into the sponsorship of migrant workers, which gives employers enormous control over their employees.
Common practices include the withholding of wages, the confiscation of passports and long working hours in substandard or unsafe conditions.
Domestic workers, who are obliged to live in their employer’s home, are particularly vulnerable to physical abuse, sexual violence and various forms of mental cruelty, while the almost total lack of labour laws for migrants provides little scope for redress.
Consequently, human and workers’ rights groups in Kenya have joined the global chorus of those calling for an end to the kafala system.
This would mean removing the requirement for migrant workers to obtain the permission of their employer to change jobs or leave the country.
Albert Njeru, Secretary General of the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals, and Allied Workers (Kudheiha), told Equal Times:
“The receiving countries want to get cheap labour. They don’t want to give decent working conditions and above all they don’t want to apply human rights”.
“National labour laws in the Gulf countries should be reformed to ensure that migrant workers have adequate protection against abuses by employers and the state.”
Like labour campaigners everywhere, Njeru also wants Gulf countries to immediately sign and ratify a number of international conventions and covenants on everything from the protection of migrant workers to freedom of association.
Marieke Koning, a policy officer at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), who specialises in domestic workers, said: “It is time that Saudi Arabia show a genuine political will to protect – in law and practice – the most vulnerable workers in its society: migrant domestic workers.”
However, in order for things to truly change, there needs to be recognition of the problem – from both sides.
Speaking to Equal Times, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Kenya, Ghorm Malhan, insisted there was nothing to worry about.
“It is not the policy of Saudi Arabia to mistreat workers and any cases you hear about are isolated,” Malhan told Equal Times in Nairobi.
“We have nine million expatriates from all over the world working in Saudi Arabia. There is no problem,” he insisted.
The Kenyan government clearly disagrees. But with an unemployment rate of around 40 per cent and a rapidly-growing population, more and more young Kenyans are willing to go anywhere and do anything to earn a living – even if that means putting their lives at risk.