Imagine this. You are excited that your daughter is taking her maiden flight abroad in search of better prospects.
You have sold nearly everything to foot the recruiting agency’s costs and cater for the air ticket in the hope that the new job will improve your daughter’s fortunes and the quality of life for your family.
Then, one morning, without a warning, you receive a call from a strange number informing you that your daughter is no more! To make matters worse, the sudden cause of death is unknown and there appears to be no help in sight ferrying her body home for proper send off.
Such was the tragedy that greeted the family of 26-year-old Miriam Njeri who died on August 26, last year in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where she had gone to work as a domestic worker.
For three months the distressed family was caught in a mix of grief and despair, moving from office to office in the middle of the 2022 electioneering season seeking help to transport the body home to no avail.
I learnt of this predicament on the morning of November 16, last year when the family contacted me, after fruitless attempts to get assistance from the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
It was a distressing a call, which coincidentally, came on the very day that the National Assembly Defence, Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committee – where I sit – was to vet four Principal Secretary nominees including Roseline Njogu of Diaspora Affairs.
I subsequently put the question on the floor of the House demanding to know from the Foreign Affairs Ministry the steps the government had taken to facilitate transportation of Ms Njeri’s body home for burial.
After a lot of legwork and blame games between Labour and Foreign Affairs officials, the Kenyan Embassy in Saudi Arabia finally facilitated transportation of the body home to the relief of the grief-stricken and distressed family.
This case has, however, gotten me critically thinking and wondering whether to blame poverty and joblessness that is pushing our young girls to the Middle East – that has notoriously come to be called the Gulf of Death – or the Kenyan government for not doing enough to guarantee their safety while working there.
In the last administration, we severally saw former Principal Secretary for Foreign Affairs Macharia Kamau blame the misfortunes of Kenyan domestic workers working in the region, especially in Saudi Arabia, on their alleged lack of subservience to their masters.
To paraphrase Mr Macharia’s words, the brutal beatings of the domestic workers, denial of shelter and food – sometimes to the point of starvation – it would appear was part of their masters’ disciplinary measures to make them to submissive. This is totally unacceptable!
Freedom from torture and provision of conducive work environment are universal human rights whose denial is inexcusable.
I must commend the new Diaspora Affairs Principal Secretary Roseline Njogu who has spent the better part of her first few months in office on a fact-finding mission in the region and documenting her findings on Twitter for public enlightenment.
Through her tweets the PS has been directing distressed Kenyan workers in the region to seek shelter in select rescue centres where they will be provided with basic amenities as the Foreign Affairs ministry facilitates their travel back home.
While this is a positive step heeding the distress of thousands of Kenyans working in the region, a lot more needs to be done.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry should urgently fast-track implementation of bilateral labour agreements signed in 2017 between Kenya and the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
These agreements had been preceded by revocation of over 900 licences of recruitment agencies following a public outcry over the torture of hundreds of Kenyans working in the region.
It is hypocritical for the Kenyan government – as has been the norm in the past – to discourage Kenyan women from pursing employment in the region as domestic workers because we still do not have capacity to guarantee a 100 per cent employment locally.
In any case, the Kenyan government is on record describing our diaspora experience as “exciting and of positive experience” with monthly remittances of over 310 million US dollars.
As part of further reforms, the newly created Department of Diaspora Affairs must strive to keep an active database and tracking system to monitor implementation of the bilateral labour agreements between Kenya and the Gulf states and facilitate speedy reporting of abuse cases for action.
There must be a mutual understanding between Kenya and the host countries to bring to book all perpetrators of torture and other human rights violations on diaspora workers.
Additionally, the Ministry of Labour must stop being a spectator to this mess and deflecting all blame to the Foreign Affairs ministry.
The Labour ministry must stop unethical recruitment agencies from illegal deployments and create a reporting system for any violations and exploitation, especially among domestic workers.
As a precondition to work in the Gulf states, the recruitment must only be undertaken by certified agencies, which must, prior to deployment, educate the recruits on any expected cultural disparities and give proper advice on reporting channels for any abuse or violations.
The diaspora labour market has been sustaining thousands of Kenyan families amid the growing unemployment in the country. We must not lose sight of the great potential of this sector and the challenges therein as we work hard to grow our economy and create jobs locally.