A majority of Kenyan domestic workers suffering in the Middle East are engaging in commercial sex work, private recruitment agencies have claimed.
Officials from more than 20 agencies said the women run away from their employers in the belief they will get more money in prostitution, which is illegal in many Gulf countries.
Those who escape from their employers can no longer be under their sponsorship.
The state should repatriate all the runways, said Mwalimu Mwaguzo, the chairman of the private recruitment agencies operating under the Pwani Welfare Association.
“To solve all these challenges, the state should repatriate all the runaways and those engaging in prostitution. Why aren't the runaways seeking help at the embassies, police stations or the firms that recruited them?” Mr Mwaguzo said.
“Where are they running to? We agree there are challenges in the Gulf, but we are at the forefront to respond to distress calls whenever issues arise.”
He spoke at a press conference in Mombasa that was called to defend agencies from accusations of neglecting Kenyan workers they had recruited to work in the Arab countries.
“It is in the public domain that most of our girls are engaging in prostitution. These are Kenyans either recruited by bogus recruitment agencies, meaning they are unlicensed or those that have run away from their employers,” Mr Mwaguzo added.
He said when the Senate and the National Assembly labour committees visited the Middle East, they came face to face with Kenyan immigrant workers working as prostitutes.
He said he recently met a Kenyan migrant worker going to Saudi Arabia with a briefcase laden with braids.
“When I asked her, she started crying. It means they have connections with their colleagues in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“You have been recruited to go work as a domestic worker; who are you taking the braids to? For what purpose? Before we start blaming and branding foreigners’ names let’s look at the behaviours of our children.”
He urged Kenyans recruited by an accredited agency and suffering in the Gulf to come out for help.
“We are here to help in case of any distress. But let’s not forget there are very lazy Kenyans who are recruited but cannot even wash a cup. If you know your child is lazy, don’t bring them to our offices for recruitment then end up crying foul in the Gulf,” he said.
He urged President William Ruto’s government to cooperate with the recruitment agencies to speed up and sign a bilateral agreement to open more opportunities for Kenyan migrant workers in the Middle East.
Coast-based human rights groups have received 63 cases of Kenyans suffering in the Gulf, with 10 repatriated to Kenya dead or alive.
Some 89 such workers died in Saudi Arabia between 2019 and 2021, according to the Committee on Labour and Social Welfare in the 12th National Assembly. The Kenyans died due to road accidents and heart attacks, among other illnesses, the committee’s report stated.
Human rights defender Mathias Shipeta blamed unregistered recruitment agencies for luring gullible Kenyans to go work in the Gulf.
“Kenyans should know we have registered and unregistered recruitment agencies. Don’t fall for bogus firms. You should know the agreement you are signing up for. They recruit women from poverty-stricken families, especially slums, who lack any training and exposure about the Gulf and who end up suffering,” Shipeta said.
He said lack of jobs in Kenya pushes citizens to seek opportunities in the Gulf countries, where some end up suffering or being killed or their human rights violated.
Human rights groups, led by Commission for Human Rights and Justice executive director Julius Ogogoh, urged the state to ban Kenyans from taking maid jobs abroad.
“Crack down on bogus recruitment agencies. Those registered should also be probed because some of our children who have come back dead were recruited by those registered by the state,” said Mr Ogogoh.
Agencies are condemned by society for recruiting Kenyans to seek better opportunities, claimed Maimuna Yusuf, Asali Commercial Agency. She said they were ashamed about advertising their work due to attacks from Kenyans.
“Why are women the only ones suffering? We are not doing illegal work. We have been accredited by the state, and we have licences. We know there are issues in the Gulf but we also have success stories. Why focus on the negativity?” she asked.
Mr Yusuf Ibrahim, managing director of Atawakul Ltd said: “We are saddened by the emerging issues in Saudi Arabia but we oppose banning Kenyan domestic workers in the Gulf as propagated by Cotu secretary-general Francis Atwoli.
“Due to the rise in distress calls from our sisters and brothers in Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, as a fraternity, we would like the government to investigate these matters.”
They promised to work with human rights organisations to respond to distress calls from Kenyans deployed in the Middle East.
He lauded the national government through the National Employment Agency and international organisations for sensitising private recruitment agencies on ethical recruitment.
Mr Ibrahim urged the government to sign a bilateral agreement with Gulf countries to create more employment opportunities for Kenyans.
Outgoing Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui acknowledged the challenges in Saudi Arabia, but said the government would not ban the jobs.
He said if the government freezes Middle East jobs, Kenyans will still troop to the region through the Persian Gulf, Djibouti and neighbouring countries.