MPs urged to end abuse of Kenyans in the Middle East

Diana Chepkemoi

Ms Diana Chepkemoi (right), a former domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, is hugged by Ms Rose Lang’at, a senior Bomet County Government official, upon her arrival from Riyadh at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on September 6. F

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

Parliament has been petitioned to institute reforms aimed at protecting Kenyan migrant workers in the Middle East.

In a 14-page petition dated September 14 and received by both the National Assembly and the Senate, Edward Githaiga, John Wangai, Collins Ganira and John Mark Ababo asked the lawmakers to ensure that Middle East countries conform to the labour statues.

“The honourable Houses should urgently address the plight of Kenyan domestic workers suffering in the Middle East by summoning public officers mandated by law to ensure conformity to the Constitution, all labour statutes, and any other international treaties that Kenya has ratified,” reads the petition.

They specifically mentioned Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman, as some of the countries where there have been several cases of Kenyan domestic workers being mistreated by their employers.

They criticised the “kafala” system, under which foreign workers’ legal status is tied to their employers and they cannot change jobs or leave the country without the employers’ permission, saying it exposes workers to abuse.

“This has led to widespread abuse of migrant workers – from passport confiscation, unpaid wages and excessive work hours to beatings and even rape by male members of the household. These young women go there with big hopes of changing their lives, but they end up suffering.”

The petitioners equated the mistreatment of migrant workers to forced labour and slavery, and said it was against the International Labour Organisation laws and a treaty signed in 2011 to protect domestic workers.

Saudi Arabia, as a signatory to the treaty, was required to put in place measures to ensure that fundamental principles and rights at work, which include the right to collective bargaining and elimination of all forms of forced labour, are respected, promoted, and realised, they said.

“Article 5 calls for effective protection of domestic workers against abuse, harassment and violence. Article 30 (1) and (2) of the constitution states that a person shall not be held in slavery or servitude and shall not be required to perform forced labour,” reads the petition.

The petitioners expressed concern that many jobless Kenyans have become easy prey and are lured by false promises of well-paying jobs in the Middle East, but their hopes are often dashed and they end up suffering and even dying.

“For many women, it is a rare opportunity to save their earnings and buy land, build a house, or start a small business as well as send money home. But sometimes, within weeks of arriving in the Gulf state, the distraught calls and cries for help begin,” the petition states.

Data from the National Assembly labour committee indicates that the number of Kenyans working and living in Saudi Arabia rose from 55,000 in 2019 to 97,000 in 2022, with majority of them being domestic workers.

One of the latest cases that caught the attention of Kenyans was that of Diana Chepkemoi, whose distress call went viral and set off efforts to rescue her from her employer in Saudi Arabia.

In July last year, the National Employment Agency told Parliament it would review bilateral labour agreements with Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia to address the confiscation of travel documents by employers, restrictions, minimum pay, dispute resolution and contract substitution.

A report by the National Assembly’s Labour committee of the 12th Parliament blamed local recruitment agencies for the suffering of Kenyan workers, with MPs saying that some of the firms were owned by senior government officials. According to the report tabled in September last year, 89 Kenyans have died in Saudi Arabia since 2019, some 200 are held in deportation camps and six hospitalised.

The committee shocked Parliament when it went on a fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia in 2020 only to produce a report that heaped praise on Saudi authorities for providing “excellent working conditions for immigrants”. The House rejected the report.