Last month, Beatrice Waruguru’s body arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from Saudi Arabia, almost a year after she was reported dead. Like many other young Kenyans seeking job opportunities in the Middle East, many of them women, her family says Waruguru left Kenya for Saudi Arabia in February 2021, and died under suspicious circumstances in December that year. The family maintains she was tortured. Waruguru worked as a househelp.
In 2010, Rose Adhiambo went to Beirut in search of a job at the age of 24, only to return home in a coffin six months later after being subjected to a catalogue of abuse by employers. Jane Njeri Kamau, 36, died under similarly harrowing circumstances in November 2014, also in Lebanon, where she had been employed as a househelp. Njeri fell ill while in police custody together with her friend, 22-year-old Margaret Nyakeru. Both had been detained after fleeing from their respective employers because of “ill-treatment”. They had been arrested in May of that year and held for five months. Nyakeru lived to tell the story.
The above cases suggest that the ill-treatment and abuse of Kenyan workers in the Gulf is not new. The problem does, however, appear to be have worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis.
While the US remains the largest source of overseas remittances into Kenya, accounting for 63.2 per cent, the Middle East has emerged as an important rival in recent times. According to Kenyan Wall Street, remittances from Asia in the twelve-month period leading up to February 2022 amounted to US$42.5 million, with Saudi Arabia being the largest source (US$19.2 million), followed by Qatar (US$7.1 million) and the United Arab Emirates (US$4.6 Million).
Speaking to the media, Sharon Kinyanjui, WorldRemit Director for Europe, Middle East, and Africa Receive Markets, explained that this development is a consequence of growing rates of migration from Kenya to the Middle East, itself a reflection of increasing rates of unemployment, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, back home. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Economic Survey 2021, total employment outside small-scale agriculture and pastoral activities stood at 17.4 million in 2020, down from the 18.1 million recorded in 2019. In the same period, the survey finds, wage employment in the private sector declined by 10 per cent from 2.1 million jobs in 2019 to 1.9 million jobs in 2020, and “informal sector employment is estimated to have contracted to 14.5 million jobs”.
In July 2021, Labour Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui said that since January 2019, the ministry had facilitated the employment of over 87,784 Kenyans in the Middle East, the majority of them working in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain. But these young Kenyans are taking risks because states such as Saudi Arabia have an extremely poor record with regard to the labour rights and working conditions of domestic workers. Reports of Kenyan domestic workers in Saudi Arabia suffering physical and sexual abuse, or dying under controversial circumstances have continued to appear in the press.
Stella Nafula Wekesa left Kenya in August 2021 to work as a househelp on a two-year contract. She died on 10 February 2022. A medical report from Saketa Hospital in Saudi Arabia indicates that Stella succumbed to cardiopulmonary arrest, but her family has said she died after her employer refused to take her to hospital, and alleges that she had suffered mistreatment under previous employers.
Appearing before the Labour and Social Welfare Committee in July 2021, Labour Cabinet Secretary Chelugui told members of parliament that 93 Kenyans have been killed while working in the Middle East in the last three years. Most were in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. The Departmental Committee on Labour and Social Welfare also noted that 1,908 distress calls were reported between 2019 and 2021, with 883 being reported in 2019-2020 and 1,025 in 2020-21.
But these young Kenyans are taking risks because states such as Saudi Arabia have an extremely poor record with regard to the labour rights and working conditions of domestic workers.
Chelugui had been summoned to explain the circumstances that led to the death of Melvin Kang’ereha in Saudi Arabia in 2020. Kang’ereha was also domestic worker, a job she obtained through United Manpower Services, a recruitment agency. She was reportedly abused and mistreated by her employer and did not return home alive.
In its 2021 report Amnesty International said migrant workers continued to be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation under Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship system, with tens of thousands arbitrarily detained and subsequently deported. The situation is no better in Qatar, which has faced criticism of its human rights record in the build up to the 2022 World Cup. “In the decade since Qatar was awarded the right to host the World Cup, exploitation and abuse of these workers has been rampant, with workers exposed to forced labour, unpaid wages and excessive working hours,” reports Amnesty.
Lebanon, which is grappling with a deep economic crisis and growing poverty, is emerging as another problematic destination for Kenyan migrant domestic workers. The Middle East Eye and Al Jazeera, among other leading international media, have highlighted numerous cases that point to poor working conditions and abuse. As in the Gulf countries, many of the affected persons appear to be female domestic workers, underlining the gendered nature of the threats faced by Kenyan and other workers in the region: A report by the International Labour Office finds that when it comes to “women’s paid employment and treatment of migrants, the region is falling behind others”.
Why is labour migration to these countries so distinctly marked by exploitation, abuse and life-threatening conditions?
At the core of the problem is the notorious Kafala system, which the Council on Foreign Relations describes as a mode of sponsorship that gives private citizens and companies almost total control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status. Institutionalized in most Arab Gulf countries and some neighbouring states like Lebanon, the Kafala system renders migrants vulnerable to the whims of employers who retain control over their legal residency and right to work. The consequences for women are particularly harsh. Those who manage to escape abusive work conditions do so without their passports, which remain in the custody of their tormentors. It becomes complicated for employment agencies to intervene as they would be in breach of contract.
Despite the structural nature of such victimization, a good deal more could be done by the sending countries to protect the growing number of migrants opting to work in the Middle East. It is revealing that working conditions and levels of harassment appear to vary considerably depending on the country of origin of the workers. According to the aforementioned ILO report, workers from the Philippines, for instance, receive higher pay. If on the one hand, such discrepancies are evidence of a racially segmented hierarchy of discrimination, they also reflect the extent to which individual governments are willing and/or able to guarantee the protection of their citizens abroad.
Critics of the Kenyan government point to its failure to offer meaningful consular assistance to victims of abuse. Consulates often do not arrange for flights back home and workers are often told to fundraise for the cost of their repatriation.
Mary Vimto, who went to Lebanon in 2014 through a broker who had no office, is now in her eighth year under the same employer. Mary’s experience has been good, but while she herself has not experienced harsh treatment, Mary tells me, “Kenyans are suffering in Lebanon”.
And does the consulate help?
“To say the truth, the consul told us he doesn’t have any connection with the Kenyan government, so he cannot help Kenyans easily,” says Mary, who uses social media to raise awareness about the difficulties faced by Kenyan women working in Lebanon. She goes on: “Because I do YouTube videos, I [learn about] problems from different ladies as the majority don’t get help from the consulate unless you pay some money. Assume you don’t have the money?” she asks.
Critics of the Kenyan government point to its failure to offer meaningful consular assistance to victims of abuse.
In a 14 January 2022 report, the Middle East Eye said that some 20 Kenyan women had camped for a week outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut seeking repatriation. Most of the women were domestic workers some of whom had suffered physical and sexual abuse that had worsened with the economic crisis in Lebanon and the COVID-19 outbreak. The situation of these domestic workers is complicated because Kenya does not have an embassy in Beirut. But even if it did, there is little reason to believe that the situation would be any better than in Saudi Arabia where the Kenyan mission has been of little help to Kenyan domestic workers in that country, at least according to Kenyans working or who have worked there.
Asked whether the Kenyan consulate offered her any help, Vera, another Kenyan victim of abuse by employers in Lebanon, told the Elephant that it didn’t, and that at one point, the officer she spoke to told her she had to stay put. Vera called her mother and informed her about her situation but neither the agency in Nairobi nor the Ministry of Labour offered any help when Vera’s mother visited their offices.
The other key weakness of government policy is the lack of regulation to control the activities of brokers—individuals and groups operating recruitment agencies (some of which are unregistered) that profit from enlisting domestic workers on terms that amount to modern-day slavery. For instance, one of the women who camped outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut told the Middle East Eye that she travelled to Lebanon in November 2021, having been promised a salary of US$300 by her agents. Upon arrival, her employers offered her half the amount agreed—US$150. She couldn’t accept the work as the money wasn’t enough to cater for her family back in Kenya, and became desperate to return home.
Rose Adhiambo, whose death in 2010 is mentioned above, had been connected to an employer by Interlead Limited, which describes itself as a trusted and accredited agent, “a pioneering Human Capital Management (HCM) Solutions Company that provides manpower sourcing services for organizations locally and across the globe. . .” Adhiambo’s employer subjected her to conditions akin to slavery. Her body was found on the first-floor balcony of a building in Beirut’s Sahel Alma neighbourhood. “She is said to have fallen to her death from the sixth floor of a building in a bungled bid to escape from a house where she worked as househelp,” The Standard reported in September 2010. Before attempting to flee, Adhiambo had called her family and informed them of her situation and her intention to escape.
The case of Vera, a returnee from the Gulf who was interviewed by The Elephant, is also illustrative. Vera went to Lebanon in August 2014 on a two-year contract, having deferred her education at Moi University in the first semester of her second year because she couldn’t afford to pay the fees. While at her home in Nairobi, she was approached by a woman who told her about opportunities to teach English in Lebanon. Abela Agencies, whose offices were at the time in Uganda House, Nairobi, arranged for Vera to travel to Lebanon. She was offered US$750; the contract was in Arabic.
Upon Vera’s arrival in Lebanon, she learnt she would instead be a domestic worker on a US$200 salary. “I was connected to a lady employer. The house was on the 16th floor in the Middle of Beirut. They have these big windows and flowers on the outside. I was okay with watering the flowers but my problem was cleaning windows from the outside. I couldn’t do that as it was risky,” the beginning of problems with her employer which culminated in her employer taking her back to the agency in Beirut. “I had not settled; I was not experienced as a housemaid. I couldn’t function well because what I got on the ground was not what I anticipated. I was also not well briefed,” Vera says.
Before attempting to flee, Adhiambo had called her family and informed them of her situation and her intention to escape.
Vera was employed by a second family for whom she worked for five months. She says that although they were not physically abusive, there were restrictions on what she could touch or eat, and she was only allowed to call home once or twice a month. When one of the sons in the family moved out, she was asked to work for his young family and the situation escalated; the wife would leave her locked up in the house and she was not allowed to operate the TV. “They would go eat out and leave me without food. They would then tell me there is milk powder and sugar and I can make tea for myself. She would bring bread on Monday and make me have it until the next week,” Vera says.
When the going got extremely tough, she demanded to return home. The response was harsh: “I paid a lot of money, I bought you and you have to work for at least seven months for me to recover my money,” Vera recalls. When Vera fell ill due to the cold, she was not taken to hospital.
In November 2021, Francis Atwoli, the Secretary General of the Central Organization of Trade Unions, termed the working conditions in the Middle East as slavery and called for the closure of agencies enlisting Kenyans to work in the Gulf. “As a government, we should take care of our people. We are tired of watching our children coming back in coffins,” Atwoli said. However, Atwoli’s seriousness on the matter has been questioned given his preoccupation with succession politics rather than with the welfare of workers.
The government has rejected calls to ban the export of labour, with CS Chelugui arguing, “It is only a small percentage of Kenyans who are suffering, while more than 100,000 Kenyans were under favourable conditions.” Given the growing macro-economic importance of remittances from countries such as Saudi Arabia, it seems unlikely that calls for a ban will be heeded anytime soon, a fact which underscores the importance of addressing the need for better protections at the policy level.
There have been attempts by parliament to address the Middle East problem. In November 2021, the Senate Labour and Social Welfare Committee presented a report to parliament in which it accused recruitment agencies of riding on the absence of formal agreements or memorandums of understanding between Kenya and other countries to manipulate desperate jobless Kenyans.
“And where they exist, the agreement falls short of taking care of the interests of the workers,” the report by the Senate Labour and Social Welfare Services committee reads in part. The committee also reported that recruitment agencies and employers were taking advantage of the lack of policy and a legal framework on labour migration to exploit Kenyans working in the Middle East.
“It is only a small percentage of Kenyans who are suffering, while more than 100,000 Kenyans were under favourable conditions”.
It further reported that Kenyans working as domestic workers do not receive consular assistance to protect their rights. “With the growing numbers of migrants to the Middle East, there is need to streamline key prerequisite processes for effective governance,” the report says. It recommended the immediate suspension of all labour migration of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia, where abuse and employment conditions akin to slavery are particularly rife.
When I asked him whether the government is doing enough to protect Kenyans in the Middle East, Senator Sakaja, chair of the Labour and Social Welfare Committee, told me it doesn’t and that, in fact, the government is squarely to blame for the problem. “First, the reason they go there is because there are no jobs here. There are more than 18,000 Kenyans in Saudi Arabia, the majority are domestic workers. But some have been successful,” he said.
Sakaja noted that most of those who have gone there through the Musaned system are okay. “In that system, you can check the house she is working in, the contacts and where the passport is,” he explained.
However, Sakaja spoke of the presence of rogue agents who run the business as human trafficking. “Because for every girl you send out, you are given almost US$1,500, it is as if they are putting potatoes in sacks. They don’t care. You should have insurance, their return ticket and be recognized by that [Musaned] system so that there is proper reporting,” he said, adding that all the agencies should be vetted afresh.
Sakaja argued that the Philippines has over 300,000 workers in Saudi Arabia but they don’t have cases of their people being killed or harassed because their government has set up a system to liaise with the government of Saudi Arabia. He also decried the shortage of personnel to handle consular issues. “We only have one labour officer called Juma. From Riyadh to Jeddah are thousands of kilometres. So, we said we must have more labour attachés and officers in Jeddah and Riyadh and safe houses in case of anything,” he said during the interview.
Sakaja also said that there are Kenyans languishing in deportation centres, and others who have been buried in cemeteries in Saudi Arabia. (Sakaja’s remarks in parliament are reported in the Hansard from page 23.)
Before resigning to join active politics, former Foreign Affairs Chief Administrative Secretary Ababu Namwamba said he was leading a review of the Diaspora Policy and, together with CS Chelugui, reviewing the bilateral legal instruments with all the Middle East countries “that are causing Kenyans a lot of trouble”.
A Labour Migration Management Bill was to be passed and a Migrant Workers Welfare Fund established following a government directive at the Cabinet level. The bill is still stuck in the National Assembly, while the fund is yet to be operationalized.
What is so difficult about establishing bilateral agreements, vetting agents and putting in place a system that works?
Interest groups are active in pretty much every sector in Kenya—individuals working in government or have influence in government who use their power for financial gain. If Haki Africa is to be believed, the migrant labour sector is no different. In a report published by the Daily Nation, the Mombassa-based national human rights organisation claimed one government official owned 10 labour recruitment agencies.
“I paid a lot of money, I bought you and you have to work for at least seven months for me to recover my money,”
So powerful are some recruitment agencies that they have reportedly bribed members of parliament to go slow on a clampdown, a claim corroborated by Senator Sakaja who went on to allege that some members of parliament and officials from the Ministry of Labour own the recruitment agencies. Cotu’s Atwoli is on record saying, “most of the recruitment agencies in the country are owned by senior people in government and operate with impunity”.
Needless to say, confirming such allegations is far from straightforward. It would nonetheless explain why, despite Sakaja’s report and former Nominated Senator Emma Mbura’s April 2015 petition in the Senate seeking better policies for Kenyan migrants in the Middle East, not much has been achieved.
Mbura, a human rights activist, had proposed that the government develop a framework that spells out the minimum entry-level salary, weekly and daily rest periods and signs a special employment contract with Saudi Arabia to protect Kenyan workers. The framework, she said, would also provide Kenyans with paid leave, non-withholding of passports and work permits, free communication and humane treatment.
Whatever the obstacles to reform, one thing is clear: a complete overhaul of the entire labour export industry is necessary because unless substantive reforms are undertaken, Kenyan migrant workers, particularly women, will continue to return to their families abused and mistreated. Unless we listen to those who live to share their tales, others will continue to arrive in body bags—a state of affairs no amount of foreign currency can justify.
This article is the first in a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.