Lucy Wanja

Lucy Wanja, who died mysteriously in Saudi Arabia.

| Pool

Lucy Wanja died in Saudi 10 days after securing an elusive job

On September 12, 2021, Lucy Wanja travelled to Saudi Arabia, where she had landed a job as a cleaner.

Not even harrowing tales of how other Kenyans had suffered in the country could stop her from taking up the job after her clothes importation business failed.

Ten days later, however, she returned to Kenya – in a coffin.

This was Wanja’s second attempt to seek employment in the Gulf.

In 2018, she had tried to travel to Dubai but was conned out of Sh105,000 by a dubious recruitment agent who is still at large.

Not one to give up easily, the 35-year-old tried again and landed the cleaning job, before she died under mysterious circumstances.

"She was among 50 girls who had been conned by an agent in 2018. Their air tickets were ready but when they reached Moi International Airport, they were told the tickets had been booked but not paid for. The agent vanished and closed down his office and we are still looking for him," said the deceased’s sister, Ms Naomi Willy.

Wanja’s mother, Ms Susan Nzilani, 67, is demanding answers from Kenyan and Saudi Arabian authorities.

“They have brought a corpse instead of my dear child. My daughter was healthy and I don’t understand what happened when she arrived there,” said Ms Nzilani.

She says she was called by the agent who recruited Wanja, who informed her about her daughter’s deteriorating health condition.

They received her body at Moi International Airport and were told their kin succumbed to injuries from a fall.

"On September 22, I was called and informed that my sister had fallen and fainted while bathing. She was rushed to the intensive care unit (ICU) in an ambulance but half an hour later I was told she had died. I have many questions. First, we were told she died after a fall. Later they said it was cardiopulmonary arrest, lastly we were told it was Covid-19. We don't know what transpired," Ms Willy said.

The family is now planning to conduct a postmortem to establish the cause of Wanja’s death.

Wanja’s demise happened amid calls for the Kenyan government to protect its citizens in the Gulf.

MPs want the government to prevail upon countries in the gulf to treat Kenyans with dignity.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs document shows many Kenyans work in the Middle East as security guards, drivers, masons and cleaners.

In Saudi Arabia, there are 120,000 Kenyans, United Arab Emirates (53,000) while 35,000 work in Qatar. In Bahrain there are 7,000, Oman 4,900, Kuwait 1,500 and Lebanon 900.

The National Assembly Committee on Labour and Social Welfare is preparing its recommendations on the state of migrant workers after their report revealed 89 Kenyans have died in Saudi Arabia between 2019 and 2021.

Another 200 Kenyans are held in deportation camps while six are in hospital. The 89 Kenyans died from road accidents, heart attacks and other causes.

The MPs, who two weeks ago took to task local recruitment agencies, revealed that some of the firms are owned by senior government officials.

"Our girls cannot continue to be enslaved and to suffer in the Middle East, with some being forced to become sex slaves. We met a Kenyan who has been hospitalised for six years. This is a serious issue," said the committee's chairman Wachira Kabinga.

Mr Kabinga cited the example of the Philippines, whose government issued a memo to Saudi Arabia to temporarily stop the recruitment of new domestic workers.

"We have had sleepless nights because our people are calling every day narrating their tribulations in the Gulf. Nearly 90 per cent of Kenyans have confessed to going through sexual harassment by their employer in Saudi Arabia," said the Mwea MP.

Committee members Omboko Milemba (Emuhaya), Caleb Amisi (Saboti) and Wilson Sossion (nominated) called for a ban on private agencies and urged the state to take charge of labour export.

"Kenya has not prioritised our people's welfare, that's why they are suffering. The government should invest in labor export and stop this modern-day slavery," said Mr Sossion.

Appearing before the House team, Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui acknowledged the challenges in Saudi Arabia, saying a government delegation would soon visit the country and hold bilateral talks on how to end harassment of Kenyans in the gulf country.

"We want the rights of Kenyans to be protected. When we travel to Saudi we shall know what killed our people, although we were told the deaths resulted from heart attacks and accidents, among other causes," said the CS.

Mr Chelugui ruled out banning the foreign jobs, saying that Kenyans would still troop to the Arab nations through the Persian Gulf, Djibouti and the neighbouring countries.

“We have to be conscious and aware of the implications of impulsive or erratic decisions like banning the Middle East jobs. This is the third time there is such a suggestion, but we would still not have resolved that problem,” he said.

Local agencies also want the government to ban recruitment of cleaners for the Saudi Arabia market, blaming the cadre for the suffering of Kenyans in the gulf.

Kenya Association of Private Employment Agencies blamed their foreign counterparts for recruiting Kenyans and dumping them in hostels as they search for jobs.

Some of the challenges facing Kenyans abroad include being denied food and salaries and the forcible confiscation of their travelling documents.

Central Organization of Trade Unions (Cotu) boss Francis Atwoli urged the government to ban the export of labour to the Middle East.