Tales from Mideast: Dystopia of violence, revulsion and death

Teresia Wanjiku is one of the Kenyans stuck in Saudi Arabia for months. 

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • But the promise of a well-paying job would soon turn into a nightmare when Wanjiku ended up in the hands of an abusive employer.
  • Poor labour regulations in some of these countries and absentee agents, however, puts workers at risk of abuse.

Teresia Wanjiku has lived a life of paucity throughout, moving from one odd job to another to fend for her three children.

With only primary school education, finding a reliable job has been difficult for the 28-year-old.  Earlier this year, a family friend referred her to Nile Gate Treasure Limited, a job agency that could find her work in the Persian Gulf.

With only a medical report and a visa required, and the promise of a monthly pay of Sh40,000, Wanjiku couldn’t resist the lure of working abroad. This job, she was told, didn’t require any formal training. She was sold. In February, she left her children aged seven, five and two years with her elderly mother and travelled to Saudi Arabia to work as a house-help.

But the promise of a well-paying job would soon turn into a nightmare when Wanjiku ended up in the hands of an abusive employer. In between sobs, she narrated to the Nation how her brief stay in this household was characterised by untold cruelties – denial of food, being overworked and even physical assault.

 “Madam would beat me up whenever we disagreed. My agent repossessed my passport and took me to a different employer,” Wanjiku recounted. Labour regulations in most Arab countries bar emigrants from changing employers. These provisions, workers lament, create loopholes for exploitation.

Poor health

“When you complain, you’re taken to Labore (labour office), where you’re detained and even tortured,”one woman said. Three months into the new job, Wanjiku was taken ill. She wasn’t tested for any ailments before travelling to Saudi Arabia, as required by law. But even with failing health, her employer refused to take her to hospital.

Instead, she was sent back to the agency, where she fled and reported them at the country’s labour office. ‘‘When the director was summoned, he threatened me,’’ said a desperate Wanjiku, whose pay has been withheld.  ‘‘He told me that if I wanted to get my money, I had to go back to my employer. I want to come home to my children,’’ she said.

Back home, her mother kept asking for money for her children’s upkeep. ‘‘I’d to tell her what I was going through. Now she just wants me back home,’’ she said. Since June, she has been detained at a hotel in Riyadh without medical attention.

She and others have pleaded with the Kenyan Embassy for two months to facilitate their travel without success.

The story of Winfrey Nyawira, 23, isn’t less tragic. When she got an opportunity to work as a house-help in the same country, she lied to her family that she’d found a job as an office assistant.

“My parents wouldn’t have allowed me to work as a house-help in a foreign country. But I needed money to support my children,” Nyawira said. Earlier this month, the mother of two had stomach ulcers after months of only a morsel given to them once a day.

Another Kenyan, Naomi Awuor, has been missing for a month after she ran away from her employer following disputes. Some reports say she’s held at an unidentified police station.

Domestic workers

Olga Cheruto, on her part, says she only agreed to travel after assurance from her mother’s friend that Saudi Arabia was safe for foreign domestic workers. “I wish I hadn’t come here. I’m struck until my contract expires,’’ she told the Nation.

Tales of verbal abuse, physical assault, coercion and other horrors meted on domestic workers in Saudi homes, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates aren’t new. In far disastrous cases, some Kenyans workers have returned home in body bags. 

Enticed by the promise of a comfortable life, many unemployed Kenyans are always willing to take their chances, despite the many risks involved.

Findings of the Economic Survey of 2019 shows that Kenya created 762,800 new positions in 2018, constituting 83.6 per cent of all new jobs created. With 800,000 Kenyans entering the job market annually, this figure was lower than the demand.

The availability of cheap, skilled and unskilled labour in Kenya, coupled with the high demand for workers in the Gulf makes it a booming business for job agencies.

Poor labour regulations in some of these countries and absentee agents, however, puts workers at risk of abuse.

Women who spoke to the Nation revealed that some employers limit communication with their family and agents.

‘‘You aren’t allowed to have a smartphone,’’ said Cheruto, ‘‘When you report to work, your madam takes it away. You’re only allowed to use your phone at certain times,’’ she added.

In some cases, the employer provides a phone that can’t take photos or record videos. Communication with agents is also strictly supervised, which leaves domestic workers to endure suffering in silence.

‘‘For most girls here, their employers keep their travel documents and job contracts. They can’t run even if they’re being abused,’’ noted Cheruto, who has worked in Riyadh for eight months now.

According to her, those who flee from abusive employers are arrested and locked up. Afraid of detention, some of them opt to brave the inhumane treatment in the hands of employers until when they’re able to flee, if lucky.

More agony

Disagreements are addressed based on the relationship between the employer and the agency, and lack of a consensus often exposes the worker to more agony.

While employers are at fault, the women put the blame on job agencies for negligence.

‘‘Why take a desperate woman to an abusive employer and refuse to listen to them when they complain?’’ Cheruto wondered.

‘‘When we complain to the agency in Nairobi, we’re promised that their office here will take action. But this doesn’t happen. We don’t know who to turn to,’’ Nyawira said.

When they travelled abroad, the women had hoped to change their families’ fortunes. For the second month now, they’ve remained in detention. Every day, they hope that Kenyan authorities will come to their rescue. In the meantime, their tribulations continue.