Gulf of hell: How dubious job firms exploit Kenyans

One of the rooms where three Kenyan women have been staying for two months in Saudi Arabia.

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Job agencies promise you heaven before you fly out of Nairobi, but the moment you land in Saudi Arabia, joy turns to horror

Winfrey Nyawira laughs off the assertion that the company that got her a job in Saudi Arabia has been in touch with her since she reported last year.

For a month, Ms Nyawira and 10 other Kenyan women have been cooped up at a Riyadh hotel, with just a meal per day, unable to take a bath and their communication with the outside world monitored round the clock, following a fallout between them and their employers over compensation and working conditions.

Officials of the Nile Treasure Gate, the company that took them to the Gulf with the promise of jobs in a secure environment and a hefty pay, however, insist that the women are well fed and all their needs taken care of.

The company is one of the 320 private employment agencies accredited by the National Employment Authority (NEA) to operate in Kenya this year. Curiously though, nearly 60 per cent of these agencies are Arab-owned or linked to owners in the Gulf— save for their Kenyan associates.

To be accredited as a private job agency in Kenya, one must have ‘‘a registered and fully equipped physical office covering not less than 225 square feet’’.

Authenticated document

Also, the tenancy agreement should be valid and authenticated by a commissioner for oaths. A search online for a majority of these agencies returns rather baffling results. Other than a barely active page on Facebook and listing on several business directories, Nile Gate Treasure Limited, Cheruto Agency Limited and Pgidee Agency Limited, for instance, have neither a physical address nor a website.

When the Nation enquired about their services and where they operate from, an attendant at Cheruto Agency Limited quickly hang up.

Subsequent calls to the agency went unanswered while an email to Nile Gate Treasure Limited was not responded to. It took the intervention of NEA to have the attention of Nile Treasure Gate.

In a letter to the authority seen by the Nation, the company claimed that Nyawira and Teresia Wanjiku were ‘‘both taken to a hotel and their expenses fully catered for’’. Without providing details, the company stated that Naomi Awuori ‘‘had a problem with her employer’’ leading to her detention.

Unknown whereabouts

To date, the whereabouts of this woman remains unknown while her relatives in Kenya are in darkness regarding their daughter’s situation. Mr Mahmud Abdul, a director of the company based in Nairobi, said, however, they are committed to facilitating the women’s return to Kenya ‘‘as soon as the Ministry of Labour in Saudi Arabia resumes operations’’.

“When airport operations resume, they’ll fly home,” Abdul said. This position has been disputed by the women, who said that their Ugandan and Filipino counterparts had already travelled back home.

NEA issues one-year permits, and according to the authority, leases for Cheruto Agency and Nile Gate lapsed in May and August this year, respectively. The lease of another company, Talent Getaway Limited, is due to expire in February next year.

An investigation by the Nation shows that some agencies rake in up to 20,000 Saudi Riyal (approximately Sh570,000) for each candidate successfully delivered to an employer, money that’s sometimes is paid up-front.

After this, the agent ferries desperate Kenyan jobseekers to start a new life in the Gulf. Regulations for this type of business are fairly easy, as investors are required to have a minimum share capital of Sh5 million besides an execution of Sh1.5 million security bond with a bank for foreign recruiters.

Olga Cheruto, a 21-year-old domestic worker in Riyadh, told the Nation that workers are not party to fee and compensation negotiations. A worker is often forced to settle for the pay fixed by the agent and potential employer.

This often leaves room for greedy employers to renege on contracts, sometimes even overworking the migrants. Cases of abuse and assault of domestic workers in Saudi homes, in Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are not new. They include denial of food, being overworked, verbal abuse, physical assault, coercion and in far disastrous cases, some workers have returned home in body bags (see separate story).

“My agent promised that I’d be paid 2000 Riyal (Sh57,700) monthly. Upon arrival, my employer said she’d pay me 800 Riyal (Sh23,000),” Cheruto narrates.

When I complained to my agency, we fell out

Whereas her contract says she’d be working for eight hours a day, this changed when she arrived in Riyadh. Her employer demanded 17 hours of work at the same compensation rate.

“When I complained to my agency, we fell out. We’re no longer in touch. If I have a problem, I discuss it with my employer,’’ she told the Nation. Glaring inconsistencies exist in some of the job contracts seen by the Nation. While her Saudi visa was to last for 90 days between February and May this year, Cheruto’s job contract expires in February 2022.

Kenyan labour laws require job agencies to train their candidates in collaboration with the Youth Enterprise Development Fund before travelling to work abroad.

Most jobseekers though revealed that they had scarcely undergone any form of training.

Whenever there’s a fallout with employers, workers are forced to foot their travel expenses, flouting the Emigration Act, which demands that employers pay their air ticket back home.

How state departments, embassies abroad look on as Kenyan expats are exploited. Lax laws put workers at mercy of employers.