Jun 15, 2017
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 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.”
Unregistered recruitment agencies
While the deaths of Kenyan domestic workers in the Gulf always makes headlines, the 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.
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.