Cotu puts firms recruiting Kenyans to Middle East ‘slavery’ on notice

Francis Atwoli

Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli addresses journalists at his Tom Mboya Labour College office in Kisumu on February 6, 2021.

Photo credit: Tonny Omondi | Nation Media Group

Employment agencies taking Kenyans to work in the Middle East have been put on notice for facilitating what Central Organisation of Trade Union (Cotu) on Wednesday termed as “modern slavery”.

The government has also been criticised for ignoring the plight of many Kenyans who have reported their suffering while working in the Gulf.

Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli said it was high time all the agencies taking Kenyans to work in the Middle East were shut.

Foreign relations and employment, he said, should be discussed between governments and not agencies “that have neither offices nor properly listed officials.”

“When you hear the CS, or PS of Labour commissioning the issue of Kenyans going either to Saudi, in Riyadh, or Jeddah, Doha in Qatar or anywhere in the Gulf to look for employment; that is an application of indirect slavery officially supported by the Kenyan government through the Ministry of Labour,” Mr Atwoli said at Cotu offices in Nairobi.

The criticism comes barely two weeks after Labour Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui revealed that at least 93 Kenyans had died while working in the Middle East in the past three years.

“We had 93 cases of death, particularly from the Gulf region. When these deaths occur, we occasionally have no view at the airport when the bodies arrive,” he told the National Assembly’s Labour Committee.

“We are following up with the Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Interior to know who the victims are and where they came from in the country.”

But Mr Atwoli bashed the agencies, saying they bribe officials in the Labour ministry to get licences to enslave young women and men.

“If you happen to go to the Jomo Kenyatta (international) Airport in the morning when the Qatar airways airline arrives, you will witness coffins coming out of that airline. Coffins of our young women who are maimed, raped and killed in the Gulf,” he said.

He wondered why Kenya does not take labour migration seriously and never negotiates the terms and conditions of employment for its workers.

“Issues of briefcase agencies under the guise of employment agencies is pure slavery. Sometimes these young men and women land into the hands of unscrupulous employers who have no address in those countries," he said.

Creat employment 

The Cotu boss said Kenya had enough capacity to create employment for its entire people only if it tamed corruption and came up with policies to protect its youth from being exploited.

“The government must assist the parents whose children are in Saudi Arabia and cannot access justice and get their way out,” he said.

Mr Atwoli then paused the press briefing to give a call to a Kenyan woman identified as Irene who, together with another person, are stranded in Saudi Arabia, and cannot come home despite the unionist sending them air ticket through the Kenyan embassy.

The women had informed Mr Atwoli that their passports were taken as soon as they were handed over to their new employers, and had never been paid a single cent for their services.

Currently, the two married women are being hosted by a Kenyan working in the embassy, a fact that does not augur well with their husbands who are helpless over the situation.

To prove its seriousness regarding the abuse of Kenyans, Cotu asked the government to close its offices in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“Employment agencies must be banned, expelled, suspended and we forget about it. If we are to look for employment for our youth, then let us look for professional labour,” he said before adding,

“I appeal to the Kenyan parents not to allow their children to go to those places even if you are tired of them. We can remain poor people but proud of our country,” he concluded.