“We must prevent Kenyan migrants from being slaves rather than workers”

“We must prevent Kenyan migrants from being slaves rather than workers”

Thousands of Kenyan migrant domestic workers in the Middle East undergo abuse at the hands of unscrupulous employers.

(Kate Holt/Solidarity Center)

In September 2014, Rose Mike had just completed high school and was looking for a job in her hometown of Nakuru in Kenya’s Rift Valley region. When she was approached by a recruiter about the possibility of a well-paid job abroad she was skeptical at first. But after reflecting on how hard it is to find a decent job in Kenya, she decided to take the opportunity presented to her.

Two months later, Rose was on her way to Damam in Saudi Arabia to start working as a domestic worker for 900 riyals (approximately US$240) a month. Upon arrival, she was picked up by her employer and taken to Khafji, 300 kilometres north near to the Saudi-Kuwait border.

Rose remembers her shock when she realised the kind of conditions she would be working under.

“At times I could stay the whole day without food and was made to work for long hours. Sometimes I would go to bed at 1.00 a.m. in the morning and wake up at 5.00 a.m.,” she tells Equal Times.

She survived two years and seven months of maltreatment until her contract ended in April 2017. Her employer returned her passport and she was allowed to go home.

Rose, now 22, is one of thousands of Kenyan migrant domestic workers in the Gulf who has undergone abuse at the hands of unscrupulous employers. There are between 100,000 and 300,000 Kenyans working in Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, according to research from Cornell University, most of which are female domestic workers.

However, even though Kenya’s National Employment Authority is mandated to register employment agencies in Kenya, the rampant illegal recruitment of migrant domestic workers means that the true figure could be much higher.

Underhand recruitment practices

Teresa Wabuko, an official with the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hospitality, Educational Institutions, Hotels and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) said that many domestic workers are recruited in rural villages where governmental control over such matters is minimal.

“These agencies send recruiters down to the villages to convince parents and even give them money and gifts so that they can allow their girls to be taken to the Gulf,” she said.

While most legitimate agencies do not charge a fee and even pay for all the repatriation expenses, others charge migrant workers extortionate amounts of money, which can run into thousands of dollars. The women and their families pay these fees – even if they have to take out loans to do so – because they are told that they will make much more money once they start working abroad. This is almost always a lie.

Joel Odigie, a human rights officer at the International Trade Union Confederation Africa Office (ITUC-Africa), says: “There ought not to be fees charged for migrants’ recruitment, but this is not respected in Africa. When fees are charged, it should be the employer that bears the cost.”

Iscah is another former domestic worker who went to Saudi Arabia around the same time as Rose. She endured 14 months of beatings and sexual harassment. “The man and his sons would grope me while I worked and the woman of the house would not admonish them. It was very painful,” Iscah tells Equal Times from her home in Mombasa.

Odigie says that the abuse that domestic workers face can be prevented by stricter measures from the departure countries. The problem, however, is that most African governments sign bilateral labour migration agreements (BLMA) with Gulf states without any provisions for the guarantee of migrant worker rights.

“The Gulf states are now concentrating on African countries for BLMAs because Asian governments like the Philippines are demanding better respect and more rights for their migrants workers,” he says. He notes that Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia are just some of the countries with BLMAs with Gulf countries.

Like slavery

The kafala sponsorship system practiced throughout the Gulf is at the heart of the problem of the abuse and exploitation faced by migrant domestic workers; Odigie likens the system to slavery. It is because of kafala that Rose’s employer knew she would never be able to leave him without his consent – no matter how bad the abuse got.

“They took my phone and passport so that I could not leave before the end of my two and a half year contract,” she says.

There have been reports of abuse and even deaths of Kenyan domestic workers at the hands of their employers in the Gulf. In September 2014 the government revoked the licenses of more than 900 recruitment agencies sending Kenyans to work in the Middle East and banned Kenyans from migrating to the Gulf for work until there are “adequate structures for the effective management of labour migration and the protection of our migrant workers,” the government said. But less than a year later it had signed a bilateral agreement with the UAE to recruit 100,000 Kenyan workers.

Wabuko tells Equal Times that it is very difficult to obtain accurate figures on either the number of domestic workers in the Gulf or the number that suffer from abuse, or even fatalities.

“Neither we as a union nor the government, have the number of domestic workers who have been killed, injured or detained in the Gulf. We get distress calls via email or phone calls but tracing them back to plan a rescue becomes a problem because they do not retain the phones and sometimes they do not even know where they are,” says Wabuko.

Most of Gulf countries do not even have trade unions with which KUDHEIHA can coordinate with, and the Kenyan embassies in the region do not have enough resources to engage in regular rescue missions. As a result, Odigie says that when African migrants leave their countries to work in the Gulf, they do so with very little or no protection.

When Iscah was looking for help to escape her employer, for instance, she said the Kenyan embassy in Riyadh wasn’t helpful. “The person I spoke with at the embassy told me that the place was too far for them to give me any assistance. I was frustrated by the statement and wondered why my own government could not do something to save me,” she says.

When the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty Professor Philip Alston visited Saudi Arabia on a fact-finding mission earlier this year – where some three million female domestic workers from around the world are thought to be working – he noted that some 7,226 women who ran away from their abusive kafeels (sponsors) between 2015 and 2016 ended up in government-run shelters that lacked essential advisory services or counseling.

Help for Iscah finally came, not from the Kenyan or Saudi governments but in the form of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). From their Facebook page, she liaised with the ITUC and ITUC-Africa who contacted the Kenyan and Saudi governments.

The pressure paid off. “In September, one year and one month after I had left Kenya, I boarded a plane back home. It was a relief to be home even though the nightmares took time to fade,” she says.

Unregistered recruitment agencies

While the deaths of Kenyan domestic workers in the Gulf always makes headlines, rescuing of those who are exploited is a difficult task. Part of the problem, according to Wabuko, is that the legitimate documentation of workers from the point of registration is almost non-existent.

“The Ministry of Labour has told us that there are only 25 registered recruitment agencies but there are many more that are not registered but are recruiting domestic workers across the country,” she says.

Wabuko says that the manner in which domestic workers arrive in Gulf countries also determines how they will be treated. “Most domestic workers arrive at the Gulf through the ‘backdoor’ and their employers know this and will therefore decide what to do with them. Other countries have negotiated good terms for their citizens to ensure that migrant workers get better treatment compared to Kenyans,” she says.

Even Alston noted in his mission report “the differential treatment of female domestic workers based on nationality.”

According to John Kaplich, public relations officer at Kenya’s Ministry of Labour, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Labour Phyllis Kandie flew to Jeddah and signed a bilateral migration agreement with her Saudi counterpart in late May 2017.

The agreement seeks to provide for a legal framework that will improve cooperation between employees, employers, recruitment agencies and government agencies in addition to safeguarding the rights of domestic workers and the regulation of their contracts. In the agreement, the government of Saudi Arabia has agreed to play a role in the recruitment process and the employment conditions.

How this agreement will be implemented and what impact that will have on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Kenyan migrant workers remains to be seen. However, Alston also remarked on the government’s inherent bias towards employers in labour disputes or cases of abuse.

But at an international level, the ITUC has been campaigning for the ratification of ILO Convention 189 on the protection of the rights of domestic workers, as well as ILO Convention 29 on forced labour. It has also called for the abolition of the kafala system, the extension of coverage of national labour laws to migrant domestic workers and the recognition of the importance of labour inspection in enforcing labour rights.

At home, KUDHEIHA is working with stakeholders including other trade unions, NGOs and the ministries of labour, foreign affairs and internal security to ensure that the recruitment of domestic workers is legal, transparent and ethical. It is also pushing to ensure that the government enters into sound bilateral agreements with other Gulf countries.

But KUDHEIHA is also working to create awareness amongst migrant workers of the potential dangers they face before travelling to abroad. “We realise that we may not stop them from going but we can make it safer for them. We can do this through awareness creation and letting them know the right procedures so that they don’t end up being slaves instead of workers,” says Wabuko.