Iscah’s escape from Saudi Arabia: abused Kenyan domestic worker tells her story

Iscah Achieng is back home in Kenya and feels lucky to be alive. Recently released from her abusive employers in Saudi Arabia, she tells a harrowing story of beatings, starvation, death threats and sexual harassment. Despite her 14-month ordeal, she is already campaigning for other domestic workers from Africa and Asia who are enduring similar – or worse.

“I feel happy, but on the other side not,” Iscah tells Equal Times by telephone from her home, and pauses, overcome by emotion. “Because there are women still trapped there. They have no way come home.”

Iscah, 23, who migrated to Saudi Arabia in September 2014, was finally released last month after the International Trade Union Confederation’s Africa office (ITUC-Africa) called for her immediate repatriation on hearing of her case. She is just one of an estimated nine million foreigners working in the oil-rich Gulf state, and one of the thousands of migrant workers suspected to be victims of trafficking, forced labour and other human rights abuses in the country.

While a number of countries such as Indonesia have stopped sending people to work in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East due to the systematic abuse of workers’ rights, a growing number of African countries like Kenya, struggling with high unemployment, continue to do so. Saudi Arabia, the new chair of the UN Human Rights Council, has sought new bilateral agreements with governments to ensure the flow of labourers.

Iscah was sent to Saudi Arabia in September 2014 by a Kenyan recruitment company, the Cheruto Agency. On arrival, she was sent by a local agent to work in a local home. “But they refused to pay me, then they beat me up. Then I ran out,” says Iscah. “And then they threatened to kill me.

“I went to the police [to report the non-payment of wages], and they helped me to recover my money,” she says. “They were supposed to take me to my agent. I was forced to sign a document in Arabic. I demanded them to translate it but they refused.”

After that point, things only got worse. “My boss took me to this house. They locked me in a room for five days, without food, without water but with a bathroom. I was drinking the bathroom water. I was menstruating, and the men would insult me. They would point a gun at my head, telling me I had to go back to work.”

Iscah was then sold to another couple for US$4000. “I didn’t agree, but I had no option.” They seized her mobile phone and the wife “used to threaten me with iron hooks, with a knife.”

“She wanted me to work more and more. I would wake up at 6 a.m. and then I would work for almost 18 to 20 hours a day. Seven days a week, no rest,” Iscah says. “When I asked when I would be paid, she said it would cost me my life.”

Online help

Then one Saturday morning in September, her employer turned on Iscah while armed with a kitchen knife. “She tried to stab me but I fought with her and the knife fell down.” The woman’s five-year-old daughter “saw the mother and me fighting. She said she would report it to the grandfather. The woman was afraid of the father-in-law.”

The child did report her mother to the grandmother of the household, who “was very kind to me. She told her son to give back my phone. They bought me a SIM card. The 8-year-old son gave me access to Wi-Fi so I could use my phone without using credits, and I communicated with my mom. I had lost hope of getting help, but my mom was encouraging me not to stop.”

While looking for help online, Iscah came across a Facebook page for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). “It was fighting for rights of domestic workers. I saw picture of an Indian lady, her arms were chopped off by her boss. I commented it was inhuman, not acceptable. I decided to share my story. I didn’t expect to get any help because I had lost hope.”

She shared video of herself, uploaded with the name Ellen, to protect her identity at the time.

And then a ray of hope. On the Facebook page “Elizabeth wrote a text for me asking where I was.” Elizabeth Tang of the IDWF, connected Iscah with Marieke Koning, a policy advisor at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in Brussels. “They stayed in touch with me to make sure I was OK. They even used to make a call, encouraging me to stay calm. I started having hope.

“I remember when Marieke told me she would try as hard as she can to get help for me,” Iscah says.

In a letter to Kenya’s labour minister, ITUC-Africa urgently requested Iscah’s immediate repatriation, listing alleged abuses including beatings, death threats, sexual harassment, captivity, non-payment and starvation.

Critics of Saudi labour practices have blamed the kafala system, a Gulf-wide practise by which employers sponsor all foreign workers, giving employers undue power and leaving migrant workers open to exploitation and abuse.

“This is clearly modern-day slavery,” says the ITUC-Africa letter. “As time ticks by, chances of her safety are dwindling and only a swift official effort can help prevent an avoidable ominous fate.”

Phone calls and emails by Equal Times to the Kenyan Labour Ministry, the Cheruto Agency and the Saudi Embassy have gone unanswered.

But the pressure appears to have worked. On a Sunday in November, Iscah says, the grandfather “told me to put on that black long dress. I was afraid because I thought maybe they’d seen the video. I took my phone, and got into the car. The person who took me was another 18-year-old boy from another family. My boss was not in the city at that time. The woman went for a walk. “

She says she was dropped off at a government labour office and was given a phone to speak with a Saudi Labour Ministry official. “He told me he got the information from Marieke, who wrote him a letter. He told me I was safe.”

Absence of legislation

Kenya’s Central Organisation of Trade Unions, COTU-K, tells Equal Times that Iscah’s ordeal was due to “the absence of a clear legislation to govern the operation and registration of the many hitherto bogus employment agents operating in the country.”

Last year, the Kenyan government announced plans to crack down on rogue employment agencies in a bid to stop the widespread exploitation and abuseof Kenyan migrant workers in the Gulf.

“It is only recently that COTU-K raised concern over the mushrooming of these agents that the government deregistered almost half of the agents and formed a committee to regularise their registration,” said COTU-K spokesman Adams Barasa in a statement.

And yet Iscah’s story is just one of many, with cases of disappearance, death, and execution.

“Iscah’s fight for freedom was courageous: seeking many ways to send out an SOS to the outside world,” says Koning.“Her phone was her lifeline. Without it, she still would be trapped in slavery.

“As a trade union team we responded to her call. It was a risk, but tracing the right person at the right time – this way securing her immediate and safe release – was a wonderful and emotional moment. Still, there are thousands of Iscah’s waiting to be rescued from slavery and life-threatening situations today. And Saudi Arabia and the sending countries have the power to do so,” Koning says.

Saudi Arabia is continuing to reach bilateral agreements with Uganda, Mauritania and Nigeria to send domestic workers to the Gulf, Koning notes.

As Iscah awaited her repatriation to Kenya in a detention centre, she saw other women in protective custody. “The ladies told me they were there for months. Some even have kids. Ladies had been raped, got pregnant, they’re still there. Some are affected psychologically, so they’re being treated as they wait for help to come back home.

“I saw them, depressed, some who are mad," she adds. "But at least at the detention centers they look after you, in terms of medication and food.”

Back home, Iscah, who had aspired to become a journalist, says she’ll look for work in a hotel, “maybe as a waiter.” And she’ll continue her activism.

“I am planning to assist my other sisters who are back there in detention. I want communicate to the Kenyan government to see how to help them to come back home. I’m just hearing them talking about it, but I don’t see them rushing to help.”