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Revealed: Broken system pushing Kenyan workers to horrifying conditions abroad

National
 A group of Kenyan women await to board a flight to Saudi Arabia at the JKIA. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Ms Rebecca Chesang only learnt of the details in her contract to work in Saudi Arabia when she got to the airport.

Her woes started in her homeland. Initially, Chesang was supposed to work as a domestic worker in Qatar until the day of departure when her agent handed her contract documents at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Throughout the two-week homecare pre-departure training in Kiambu, she knew he employer was in Qatar.

Her employment agent revealed that she was going to work in Saudi Arabia. The agent also revealed the amount of money she would earn.

Migrant domestic workers are required to undergo pre-departure homecare training to equip workers with skills on housekeeping, cookery, supplies control, childcare, home nursing and emerging trends of homecare. It is also to acquaint themselves with new environment in the host country.

“We did not learn much during the training. They taught us how to use a washing machine, how to take care of a child and the training was done in English. But that was not what we found in the foreign land," she says. 

It is also a legal requirement for the migrants to have Yellow Fever vaccination certificate but Chesang alleged that she and other girls got family planning injection instead of the Yellow Fever vaccination.

“I came to realise later that it was a family planning injection. We did not know. The agents do not care about us. All they want is money.”

“You cannot read the content of the contract in the office. I read mine at the airport. They do that because they know there is no way you will go back after all the processes. I complained because I was to go to Qatar but they told me there was nothing I could do,” said Chesang.

She claimed that their flight ticket did not cater for meals. “We were received by a Kenyan and some were picked by their employer from the connecting agent’s office in Saudi Arabia. I was the picked the last,” she added.

“I worked peacefully for two weeks them my employer started mistreating me. One day they forgot to close a freezer, I saw a body of an African women. She had been cut into pieces and put in the freezer. I was terrified but I could not tell anyone about it because they could kill me,” she said.

Chesang’s contract indicated that she was supposed to get Sh24,000 monthly pay (748 Saudi Arabia Riyal) but her employer was paying her Sh22,000.

“I suffered and I wanted to go back home. My agent did not respond to my calls and messages. My employer’s son wanted to shoot me but the mother stopped him,” she said.

It was in 2020 when Kenya was on lockdown and flights had been suspended. Chesang could not come back home.

She persevered physical and psychological torture for seven months before her aunt intervened and managed to compel the agent in Eldoret to save her niece’s life.

“My boss wanted to shoot the people who came to rescue me and they left the home. She turned against me and that evening, she sat me down at midnight and told me to say my last word to my aunt because they were going to kill me.”

“I told my aunt if those people kill me, she should make sure my body is taken to Kenya. Miraculously, he received a call and he changed his mind. But she told me to pay him all his expenses so he could let me go or sell me to another family,” she added.

She agreed to be ‘sold’ to another family contrary to her contract and without the employer informing the office.

“It was the same story of mistreatment in the second house. My legs stated swelling and my mouth turned red. A medical assessment showed that I had suffered food poisoning. He was ready to let me go but the wife declined. She burnt my arm with a hot iron box.”

“I wanted to kill myself. I had a knife in my bedroom for three days. It was too much pain to endure but my aunt encouraged me not to end my life. My employer sometimes indecently touched me looking for her lost gold,” said Chesang.

Eventually, she was rescued and repatriated back to Kenya. Her plight tells the sad story of Kenyan migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries.

A new report by the Commission on Administrative Justice on Systematic Investigation into the Plight of Kenya Migrant Domestic Workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia revealed that girls and women undergoing torture and mistreatment in the Middle East are victims of a broken system.

The report released on Monday identified systemic gaps in law among other loopholes that expose workers to inhumane treatment.

If systems worked and procedures followed to the latter, maybe Chesang would not have to endure torture.

Ideally, the recruitment process is supposed to be led by the National Employment Authority (NEA), an agency that approves job orders uploaded in the system by the recruitment agencies or employers and approves the list of prospective workers and provides the list to Immigration department for fast-tracking of passports.

Currently, private employment agencies receive job orders from their counterparts in the Middle East and recruit girls without proper procedures. 

It has emerged that most agents cut links with the workers the moment they get their fee and as soon as they link them to employers.

The report established that major forms of abuse experienced by Kenyan migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia were passport confiscation, physical abuse, sexual abuse, sleep and food deprivation, labour exploitation, imprisonment prior to deportation, religious intolerance, movement restriction, racism and psychological abuse.

“A Kenyan girl I found in the office after being rescued had been raped by the employer and his son. It is not that we go there to be mistreated. Six of my friends have died in Saudi Arabia,” Chesang said.

The reports unearthed the nature of a broken system stemming from registration, regulation of private employment agencies, recruitment of workers and processing of job orders and demand letters from foreign countries.

Kenyans seeking jobs locally and abroad are also supposed to register in the National Employment Authority Integrated Management System (NEAIMS) portal and in case of emergency distress, workers can report their plight through the system.

On registration of the recruitment agencies, an inter-ministerial committee comprising representatives from the Labour and Foreign Affairs ministries, Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI), National Intelligence Service (NIS), National Police Service, Immigration and the Office of the Attorney General vet the application documents.

Once the documents are approved by NEA, the intelligence service conducts an intensive background check and a negative report from NIS automatically disqualifies the applicant.

If the applicants meet all the requirements including having a physical office, they ae given a greenlight to pay the required fee and are licensed to operate for one year.

However, the report revealed that the registration is marred by challenges where some private agencies submit fake documents like police clearance certificates, tax compliance certificates and fake lease agreements.

Some of them even hire offices for the purposes of NEA inspections and then give them back rendering then untraceable whenever needed.

“Some agents change their office location after being licensed without notifying NEA. Others are opening new agencies after defrauding unsuspecting jobseekers,” reads the report.

It also came out that influential politician use proxies to operate the agencies hence interfering with their management. Some Kenyans are being used by foreigners to open recruitment agencies.

The rogue agencies send unsuspecting workers out of the country with visitor’s or fake attestation documents then disappear after defrauding them money.

Some girls reported that they only realised that they were given fake work contracts after landing in Saudi Arabia.

“NEA lacks a sufficient legal and enforcement framework for dealing with rogue private employment agencies. The regulation also does not assign expressed responsibility to the agencies as a regular reporting on the welfare of migrant workers throughout the contract period,” reads the report.

The law is also silent on punitive punishment for a non-compliant agent or those who use forgery to obtain licenses.

The report also revealed that data provided by the Private Employment Agencies on their employees working abroad is usually not correct hence the National Employment Authority does not have accurate data of Kenyans employed in Saudi Arabia as domestic workers.

Since January 2019 the ministry of Labour facilitated the employment of more than 87, 000 Kenyans in the Middle East.

NEA requires the recruitment agencies to submit quarterly reports indicating the number of domestic workers recruited, the period of work, details of the employee's next of kin and the skills exported.

However, this has not been the case and NEA has to conduct impromptu spot-checks at the agents’ offices to ensure they still comply with the code of conduct.

The National Industrial Training Authority (NITA) is mandated to regulate the homecare training facilities and ensure they don’t accommodate more workers than the accredited capacity.

NITA indicates that there are 104 accredited training facilities. Workers are supposed to undertake the homecare curriculum for four weeks where 21 days are set for training and a week scheduled for assessment.

Agencies called for the reduction of the training period arguing that it is unnecessarily long and expensive. Use of Kafara System in employment of foreign workers was also identified as a weakling in protecting Kenyan workers’ rights while in Saudi Arabia.

Kafara is a sponsorship system where the employer covers all travel expenses and provide accommodation for migrant domestic workers.  The system dictates that the worker’s visa can only be renewed or terminated by the sponsors hence giving them power to ‘own’ the workers.

Under the system, workers need sponsors permission to transfer jobs, end employment and enter the host country hence compromising the workers’ protection.

On implementation of the Bilateral Labour Agreement (BLA) between the government of Kenya and that of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, CAJ observed that some employees earned less than the negotiated minimum wage of Sh28,819 (900 Riyal).

The BLA also requires domestic workers to rest for continuous nine hours per day however, accounts of majority or returnee migrant workers indicate that there are no rest days for domestic workers and others are only allowed to rest for only four hours per day, especially during the Ramadhan period.

It also came out that most employer contravene the BLA provision that migrant workers should be in possession of their identity and travel documents.

The case of Stella Nafula who died in a Saudi Arabia hospital in February 2022 also showed the reluctance to implement the BLA requirement compelling employers to allow their employees access medical treatment and cater for the medical bills.

Nafula succumbed to Cardiopulmonary arrest but her family reported that he employer had refused to take her to the hospital. Other returnees reported that they were forced to work outside their site of employment.

The report identified gaps in the BLA, urging the Cabinet Secretary for Labour to fast-track the review of the agreement to cover the identified gaps including minimum wages, time limes for contract termination, clear sanctions on rogue employers and workers.

“We cannot enforce something in Saudi if it is not in the BLA. We can improve our systems here but we need to negotiate an agreement with them so that when something happens, they are able implement on our behalf,” said Kajuju.

In light of the plight faced by women due to the systematic gaps, the commission made a raft of recommendations to specific agencies including establishment of a multi-agency working platform for all stakeholders.

CAJ urged the office of the president to finalise national legal framework for recruitment of migrant workers, ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 and the Private Employment Agencies Convention 1997.

“We appreciate that are quite a number of labour laws that are existing but most of them do not respond to labour exportation,” said Kajuju.

Kajuju called for the inclusion of regulations and obligations placed on Saudi employers after receiving the domestic workers in the draft Bill on Labour Migration Management.

Further, the commission recommended the deployment of labour attachés in Saudi Arabia, facilitation of mandatory registration of workers at the Kenya embassy upon arrival and establishment of safe houses to accommodate those in distress.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must have a proper consular service and safe houses so that if you are abused in your place of work, you will have somewhere to run to,” said Kajuju.

According to Kajuju, a total ban on importation of labour to Saudi Arabia as was not the solution citing the economic benefit of remittances from the country.

Kajuju said that Saudi Arabia rate third among counties that have large remittances to Kenya after US and the United Kingdom.

US accounts for 55.9 per cent of foreign remittances as at Match 2021 followed by the UK with 11. 3 per cent and Saudi Arabia distant third accounting for four per cent of foreign remittances to Kenya. Canada and Australia follows with 2.9 per cent each.

Remittances from Asia in the twelve-month period leading up to February 2022 amounted to Sh5.1 billion, with Saudi Arabia being the largest source Sh2.3 billion, followed by Qatar with Sh868.6 Million and the United Arab Emirates Sh554.9 million.

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