by Joyce J. Wangui
As the quest for working abroad heightens for many skilled and semi-skilled Kenyans, only a handful understand the implications of working in countries where labor laws are ignored. Media reports of brutality toward foreign laborers in Saudi Arabia have done little to deter determined Kenyans from seeking greener pastures. But has the search for a better life become modern-day slavery?
The 2010 International Organization for Migration report Harnessing the Development Potential of Kenyans living in the United Kingdom cites the lack of employment opportunities and unattractive wage levels in Kenya as among the factors that have led to high levels of migration abroad.
Approximately 3000 female Kenyan domestic workers are currently working in Saudi Arabia (although the number could be higher since some do not register with the Kenyan Embassy in Riyadh). Of these, 90 percent are from Mombasa, where a majority of residents share the same Islamic beliefs as Saudis, a factor that woos many into immigrating there.
Saudi Arabia has been in the spotlight for unlawful human trafficking and has been named a Tier 3 country by the U.S. Department of State in its 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report. A Tier 3 country’s government does not fully comply with the minimum standards required by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 and is not making significant efforts to do so.
When Salma Noor, 28, left Kenya for Saudi Arabia in 2008, she thought she was entering a safe haven. Her job-recruiting agent had promised her a lucrative job at a duty-free shop based at Riyadh International Airport.
“Upon reaching in Saudi, I was received by a middle-aged couple who told me that I would work in their house as a domestic worker.” Her employers confiscated her passport and took her mobile phone. She was made to work 18 hours a day, usually with no food, save for the little she managed to grab while cooking.
“I was not even allowed to sleep in the house. I slept in an uncomfortably tiny room, which was for their dog before it died. The man of the house often raped me and threatened to kill me if I ever told anyone. His wife beat me on a daily basis, as if the act was part of my job.”
Noor was once burned with a hot iron and later locked in a room devoid of oxygen for committing the crime of singing. “I had to battle for oxygen,” she says amid sobs.
Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship system, known as Kafala, ties employment visas to employers thus transforming voluntary servitude to slavery. A resident permit is arranged by recruiting agencies that match the worker to the household and charge both parties a recruitment fee. Workers become indebted to the agencies and often spend months repaying them.
A typical workday for domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is 15 hours. At US $7-14 per day, the average hourly wage amounts to less than one dollar per hour. In extreme cases, an employee’s salary is withheld for a long time with the assumption that the domestic worker does not need the money since she has all provisions at her host house.
Fatima Hassan, 30, is a victim of such wage slavery. She had not been paid for one-and-a-half years and recently returned to Kenya. Hassan says she was lucky to escape.
“Whenever I asked for my payment, my boss insisted that she keeps for me until it gets into a lump sum, but when I nagged for it, I was thoroughly beaten and threatened with death.” She adds that some Saudi families would rather kill you than pay your wages.
Hassan was assisted by the Kenyan embassy in Riyadh. “Embassy officials could not intervene for my salary, though they paid for my return flight to Kenya after keeping me for two weeks at the embassy premises.”
Like many others, Hassan was confined in her employer’s house for two years under a cruel system that is socially accepted and legally sanctioned in Saudi Arabia. “No off-days, no rest, no nothing. These people are animals, in fact worse than animals,” is all Hassan has to say.
In yet another harrowing incident, as reported by Human Rights Watch in 2010, Saudi authorities deported Fatima Athman, a domestic worker from Mombasa after she reported injuries “from her employer pushing her off a third-floor balcony in an attempt to kill her. She survived because she fell into a swimming pool.”
When contacted, the recruiting agency that had helped Athman secure her job denied the claims of torture, saying that most girls were being punished for disobedience. Suffering by Kenyans at the hands of both employers and employment agencies has spurred heated debates among human rights activists, the media, and civil societies. They blame the government for keeping a blind eye.
Hassan Noor, an ex-official of the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, bluntly accuses the Saudi government for perpetuating neo-slavery. In an interview, he echoes Hillary Clinton’s words that countries perpetuating modern-day slavery should be named and shamed. The U.S. Secretary of State has been at the forefront of spearheading the fight against modern-day slavery in the world.
Self-proclaimed human rights activist Hussein Khalid says, “We have a Kenyan Embassy in Riyadh which appears toothless. Even the Kenyan Ambassador in Saudi Arabia, where these atrocities are happening before his eyes, appears to be silent.” The Government, he feels, should be doing much more to protect its workers abroad.
According to Ken Vitisia, Director of the Middle East Office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kenya and Saudi Arabia could sign a bilateral labor agreement soon. “Officials from both countries have held inter-ministerial meetings seeking to establish a legal framework that would protect Kenyans that travel to seek employment in any capacity.”
The agreement would ensure that the government keeps track of Kenyan employees in Saudi Arabia. Amongst the conditions in the agreement, Vitisia says, is a proposal for the contract drawn to be between the employers in Saudi Arabia and the Kenyan employee before travel. Most of the contracts currently being signed are between agents and the employee and later the agent draws another one between him and the employers.
A joint collaboration between the labor and foreign affairs ministries and the International Organization for Migration has also seen the establishment of a labor migration unit to protect the increasing number of Kenyans working abroad.
Labor official Beatrice Kituyi says the unit would act as a one-stop shop where information will be processed and enquiries on labor migration addressed. “We issued a directive to all international employers and employment agencies to register with us, detailing the nature of the jobs, skills required, and the wages being offered. They also have to be vetted.”
The unit has also spread information at home to bring about greater awareness of the risks and rights faced by Kenyan women who choose to migrate and to strengthen the services provided to them by its embassies.
The Human Rights Watch report As If I Am Not Human documents how domestic workers in Saudi Arabia suffer physical abuse, sexual abuse, and economic exploitation but face obstacles to redress. Saudi law specifically excludes domestic workers from protections of the labor law.
Some victims of abuse, due to procedural hurdles, choose to leave the country rather than confront their abusers in court. Subira Bakari unsuccessfully tried to file complaints with the police. She recently returned home with her son, who was also working in Saudi Arabia under deplorable conditions.
“When it dawned on me that taking my abuser to court was an exercise in futility, I feigned sickness and was consequently deported to Kenya.”
Bakari faked epilepsy, which prompted her employers to contact her agency back home to arrange for her repatriation. “This was no easy task as my agent ordered me to pay him Sh.150, 000 (US $1,661) in order to return home.”
Bakari adds that the Saudi Government opts to return victims of abuse to their home countries without adequately investigating and prosecuting the crimes committed against them.
Human Rights Watch research shows that migrant domestic workers are some of the least protected workers in the world. In Saudi Arabia, an estimated 1.5 million migrant domestic workers are excluded from labor law protections.
Female domestic workers bear a heavier brunt as they are often trafficked for sexual exploitations. If nothing is done now, poor immigrants will continue to suffer, and even face death, as they seek greener pastures abroad.
About the Author:
Joyce J. Wangui is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya and writes for various online media agencies. She earned a Diploma in Mass Communication in 2002, and started her media career in Rwanda in early 2003 where she worked as a senior political reporter for The New Times, a state-owned English newspaper. Joyce is an active member of Highway Africa; an annual gathering of African journalists in South Africa and the Deutsche Welle Global Media forum held in Bonn, Germany. She is currently pursuing a one-year correspondence degree in International Journalism.