Uproot exploitative immigrant recruitment agencies to deal with Gulf workers' deaths

Three Ugandan girls lie on a floor in their holding rooms in Saudi after running from abusive employees. [File, Standard]

The plight of Kenyans working in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, continues to be harrowing.

This is occasioned by increasing cases of gross human rights violation and reports of deaths under unclear circumstances.

Domestic workers and private security personnel are the most affected.

The call for Labor and Social Protection CS and Inspector General to surface before the Senate Committee on Labor and Social welfare, to shed light on allegations of fraud by an Eldoret-based First Choice Recruitment and Consultancy Agency, among many others is expedient.

These agencies extort huge sums of money from desolate citizens, the majority being the youths, dodge tax compliance and continue to act as link suppliers of terror recruits and human trafficking abroad. 

In the last two years, over 100 deaths have been recorded by the Ministry of Labor affecting Kenyan immigrants working in the gulf regions.

In 2007, the government sought to curb recruitment malpractices by enacting the Labor Institutions Act that regulates cross-border recruitment by private employment agencies, including the registration requirements, agents’ obligations, and penalties for violations.

The law’s subsequent amendments in 2014 regulated recruitment costs, shifting the responsibility for payment to the recruitment agencies, except for a service fee that should not exceed 25 per cent of the workers’ first monthly salary. In 2009, Kenya drafted an overall migration policy, followed by a national labour migration policy in 2010.

These policies have largely remained in draft form, yet circumscribing the deployment of Kenyan workers, their labour rights and protections while abroad, and reintegration. In 2015, Kenya implemented a diaspora policy focused on harnessing the potential of its nationals abroad to contribute to the country’s economic development. The policy sought to facilitate remittance inflows.

Enacting the labour migration 2021 bill into law and enforcing the tenets will ensure challenges of migrants will be fairly addressed. There will be a pre-departure labour and rights-based training programme for Kenyan migrant workers, the existence of functional regulations guiding registration of employment agencies, the existence of structured contracts and remunerations. There will be a functional and updated database of employment opportunities available for Kenyans in the Middle East and other foreign destinations, strengthened bilateral working relationships to ensure embassies play a crucial role in addressing the plight of workers overseas.

The law aims at building the capacity of agencies by wiping out the briefcase and rogue recruitment agencies that violate policies in sending workers abroad. The agencies will have to pay a security bond of Sh500, 000 to Sh1.5 million ($4,852 to $14,556) for the government to repatriate workers in the event of emergencies.  

For instance, Qatar is a country that is extremely reliant on migrant labour. Qatar’s workforce is made up of approximately 2 million migrant workers, which is about 95 percent of their entire workforce.  In most of the Gulf Cooperation Council members, foreign labour was regulated by the kafala (sponsorship) system under which migrant workers were completely tied to their employer. Under this system, employers essentially had full control of their workers as the worker had to be permitted by their kafeel (sponsor) if they wanted to enter the country, change employment, or leave the country for any reason.  

Migrant workers were completely reliant on their kafeel for legal residence and livelihood. A common practice by the kafeel was to confiscate the workers’ passports and travel documents to exert further control. Due to this dependency, employers escape accountability for the abuses they inflict on their workers as debt accumulates and workers face the fear of retaliation if they were to speak out.

This trend is slowly changing; the Qatari government has made commendable efforts to introduce progressive labour reforms. In October 2017, Qatar and the ILO entered a three-year technical cooperation programme to create labour reforms that would help uphold the 1930 Forced Labour Convention and the 1947 Labour Inspection Convention. On the agenda, Qatar was to focus on key areas of improving labour practices: improvement in the payment of wages; enhanced labour inspection and Occupational Safety and Health; replacement of the kafala sponsorship system and improvement of labour recruitment procedures; increased prevention, protection, and prosecution against forced labour and
promotion of workers’ representation.

In Qatar, the collection of recruitment fees and related costs from migrant workers is prohibited, yet the practice remains widespread. Qatari companies recruit migrant workers from various countries, where the labour laws and their enforcement, particularly regarding recruitment fees, are more lenient or completely non-existent. The collection of recruitment fees by migrant workers is deemed unethical and unfair by both the Government of Qatar and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Notably, to secure jobs abroad, migrant workers regularly take out loans with interest in order to afford the exorbitant fees. This accumulated debt can increase a migrant worker's risk of falling into debt bondage while braising their vulnerability to exploitation. Even in less extreme circumstances, it leads to situations in which workers are stuck in unfavorable working and living conditions. In such cases, returning home is not a realistic option as job insecurity could push them further into indebtedness. Migrant workers’ salaries are split between loan repayment, remittances for family, and personal living costs. This inevitably delays their ability to save and meaningfully improve their socioeconomic status.

Guidelines and policies meant to protect immigrants should be strengthened and enforced. Majority of job placement companies have taken advantage of policy gaps to exploit Kenyans.  A clear-cut focus by inter-governments, related ministries and agencies should work towards ending the collection and charging of recruitment fees and related costs from immigrants; let there be a payback scheme in which all employees are reimbursed for the recruitment fees they unfairly incurred.

The establishment of safe houses by the Kenyan government to safeguard its migrant workers from abuses in the Middle East countries is timely. The process of tracing Kenyans suffering abroad and enforcing stringent measures to control illegal labour immigrants is a move towards the right direction. Let it be mandatory for all private recruiting agents to register with the National Employment Authority (NEA) to be allowed to export labour. There is a need for a centralized database that captures the details of workers and recruiting firms for ease in monitoring the safety and security of immigrants. Labour laws of the exporting and importing countries should be harmonized with space for immigrants to be oriented, be able to interact and know each other within the working environments as well as seek legal redress from the mother country in the event of prejudiced treatment while abroad.   

Let there be a relentless crackdown by the government on rogue employment agencies that are exploiting vulnerable Kenyans seeking employment abroad. The move by the government in signing bilateral agreements with a number of foreign countries to export human labour is noble and bound to increase the number of skilled Kenyans accessing job opportunities abroad. This will increase diaspora remittances back to the country as well as guarantee the welfare of the workers.

Isaac GM Andabwa (OGW) is the General Secretary of Kenya National Private Security Workers’ Union. He is also an Executive Board Member of Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU).