The Middle East Slavery: It’s Time to Quit the Urge for Saudi Arabian Jobs!

By Lynnet Okumu / Published September 8, 2022 | 3:21 pm




KEY POINTS

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, most of them working in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, and Bahrain.




There is no doubt that the most pressing challenge for young Kenyans today is the lack of decent jobs for the highly, moderately, and lowly educated youths.

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 found that wage employment in the private sector declined by 10 percent 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”.

Consequently, hundreds of thousands of these youths, especially girls, have opted to dip their nets in the Middle East countries such as Saudi Arabia,  Dubai, and Qatar, in hope of catching at least a fish to quench their hunger.

Kenyan Women and girls are employed in private households in these regions where they perform basic household chores like cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and other essential tasks.

The irony, however, is the fact that despite their vital role, they are among the most abused and exploited workers. They work long hours for wages far below the minimum rate and some suffer physical and sexual violence. The innocent souls have been for sure made slaves in their line of duty!

A fresh and haunting incident is that of Diana Chepkemoi, a 24-year-old Kenyan student who had gone to Saudi Arabia in search of a better life but ended up getting detained. She revealed intricate details of her troubles in Saudi Arabia during her emotional arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) on Tuesday, September 6, 2022.

“I left Kenya to go to Saudi Arabia with the hopes of getting a better life and to be honest, mine was just the tip of the iceberg, and people are suffering there. My friends are suffering. I plead with the government to rescue our people. They are psychologically and mentally tortured. It’s a shame being told that there is nothing the government can do.”

The ill-treatment and abuse of Kenyan workers in the Gulf are not new. 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 in recent years.

On social media, we hear stories of how these youngsters’ lives end within a blink of an eye, and sometimes their sensitive body organs are chopped off.

Am sure you have also heard of the many tales of the poor working conditions, which deteriorate their health. Unfortunately, once you are there you are a slave. You can’t go to the hospital. Looks like the employers are happy when you die.  Or maybe there is a gain for your death.

Chepkemoi’s case is just but one of the very many cases of young girls seeking job opportunities in the Middle East but ending up getting tortured or return as corpses. In June 2022, one lady called Beatrice Waruguru’s body arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from Saudi Arabia, almost a year after she was reported dead.

In 2010, another victim 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 catalog of abuse by employers.

In yet another case of an unfortunate turn of events, Jane Njeri Kamau, 36, died under similarly harrowing circumstances in November 2014, also in Lebanon, where she had been employed as a house help. 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 cases we see are just about a quarter of them all. There are so many stories untold of girls who are stuck in the Middle East. They just sit there waiting for their dawn! All hopes of ever getting home, whether dead or alive all gone.

And even with all these reports and data received, many young girls are still journeying to the Middle East. They say experience is the best teacher but getting to experience life in the Middle East as a domestic worker is the worst you could ever dream of.

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, most 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 regarding the labor rights and working conditions of domestic workers.
Chelugui stated that 93 Kenyans have been killed while working in the Middle East in the last three years. 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.

Kenyan Government Failures

Critics of the Kenyan government point to its failure to offer meaningful job opportunities as well as 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.

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.

In November 2021, Francis Atwoli, the Secretary General of the Central Organization of Trade Unions, termed the working conditions in the Middle East slavery and called for the closure of agencies enlisting Kenyans to work in the Gulf. However, Atwoli’s seriousness on the matter seems to have been immediately blown away by the wind.

The government in recent years, has rejected calls to ban the export of labor, with CS Chelugui arguing that it is only a small percentage of Kenyans who are suffering, 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 Labour Migration Management Bill was to be passed and a Migrant Workers Welfare Fund was 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.

The big question is what is so difficult about establishing bilateral agreements, vetting agents, and putting in place a system that works?

Way Forward

Whatever the obstacles to reform, one thing is clear: a complete overhaul of the entire labor export industry is necessary because unless substantive reforms are undertaken, Kenyan migrant workers, particularly women, will continue to return to their families abused, mistreated, and dead!

Unless we listen to those who have lived to share their tales, others will continue to arrive in body bags—a situation no amount of foreign currency can justify.

Kenyans have a right to be destitute in their own country rather than go chasing after the mirage of a good life promised by modern-day slave traders called labor externalization companies and their Arab (yes the same Arabs that traded in Africans in the 15th Century) collaborators.

The government should therefore do something about it. First, it should arrange for Kenya Airlines to go to the Middle East and bring back all willing long-term unemployed Kenyans and those living under slave conditions.

The second thing it should do is immediately pass legislation to classify all labor externalization as slavery and thereafter deregister all companies in that dirty business.

And thirdly government should ring-fence certain occupations for Kenyans. There is no reason why we should have foreign waiters, porters, drivers, and such. Our so-called investors should import labor including for certain managerial positions only if it is proven that there are no suitable Kenyans to fill those positions.

The government in its delivery of services has enabled job creation in the public sector. But these alone cannot meet the needs of the citizenry. It should create a conducive environment for the private sector, individuals, and others to set up businesses thereby promoting entrepreneurship.

Fundamentally, the government should properly plan, well-structured, and broad-based programs. So far, the government seems to be tinkering at the superficial level without a long-term, comprehensive plan.

Accelerating economic growth is central to creating employment opportunities for youth, as well as providing market-driven education, training, and life skills.

To make a smooth transition to adulthood, young people require decent work and the ability to actively contribute to economic and political development and stability. Short of this, youth will remain at the margin of the economy, to serve as the violent watu wa mkono in 2022 and beyond. Not to mention the increased numbers that shall embark on a journey to slavery.

For those who are still planning to get to the Middle East, your life is in your hands. What if you stopped crying and blaming the government for not doing anything and get to do something for yourself? It’s better to appreciate the little and be alive than get much that you will not live to taste!

Related Content: Kenya to Start Importing Fuel from Saudi Arabia






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