Address plight of Kenyan domestic workers suffering in Saudi Arabia

Beatrice Wauruguru

Demonstrators march in Nairobi on May 19 to protest the murder of Beatrice Wauruguru, a Kenyan domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

Aesop, in Fable 346, narrates the story of the Dog and the Wolf. A gaunt wolf was almost dead with prolonged starvation when he chanced to meet a house dog. “Ah, cousin!’’ exclaimed the dog. “Your itinerant life will soon be the ruin of you. Why don’t you work steadily as I do and get your food regularly served to you?’’  The wolf replied: “I would have no objection, if only I could get a place.” The dog promised: “I will easily arrange that. Simply follow me to my master and share my work.’’

So they took the town route. But on the way, the wolf noticed a bald spot on the dog’s neck; the skin was chafed. He sought to know how that came about. “Oh, it is nothing,’’ quickly replied the dog. “That is only the place where the tether is put to keep me chained up.’’ Horrified by that revelation, the wolf bolted, loudly proclaiming that it was better to starve than toil in torrid slavery.

Tens of millions of women and girls are employed in private households around the world, where they perform basic household chores like cooking, cleaning, caring for children and other essential tasks. 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.

Around 11 years ago—on June 16, 2011—a landmark international treaty was adopted to protect domestic workers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 189 fundamentally altered how undervalued domestic workers, most of whom are women and girls, and their work inside the home are recognised, appreciated and protected.

Mindful of its commitment to promote decent work via the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalisation, the general conference, in the Domestic Workers Convention 2011 preamble, recognised the “significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy, which includes increasing paid job opportunities for women and men workers with family responsibilities, greater scope for caring for ageing populations, children and persons with disability and substantial income transfers within and between countries.’’

Article 3 called on the member states—including Kenya and Saudi Arabia—to put in place measures geared towards respecting, promoting and realising the fundamental principles and rights at work—namely, freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; abolition of child labour; and elimination of discrimination in respect of employment or occupation. Article 5 called for effective protection of domestic workers against abuse, harassment and violence.

Member states are required to effectively protect domestic workers, including migrant domestic workers recruited by private employment agencies against abusive practices.

Parliament’s Committee on Labour and Social Welfare data shows the number of Kenyans working and living in Saudi Arabia rose from 55,000 in 2019 to 97,000 this year, mostly domestic workers. Harsh economic realities and high levels of unemployment have pushed many Kenyan women and girls to cross borders in search of better opportunities. But most of them end up in the hands of brutal and abusive employers who subject them to perpetual misery, mental anguish and untold hardship. Some have succumbed to injuries inflicted by their vicious bosses.

The Daily Nation last week reported how a teen worker was tortured to death in Saudi Arabia. Early this month, it ran a story about a Kakamega family that lost their daughter, a domestic worker in a Middle East country. A report to the National Assembly by Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Kamau Macharia late last year revealed that 89 Kenyans, mostly domestic workers, mysteriously died in the preceding two years in Saudi Arabia.

Nairobi and Riyadh ought to enter into a binding bilateral agreement to protect domestic workers’ rights. Employers who contravene the convention must face the law as a deterrent. The government can also initiate programmes targeting the youth and women to empower them economically and, hence, blunt their desire to fly out.

Mr Maosa is a banking and finance expert. [email protected]. @ndegemaosa