Bilateral labour pacts not enough to protect Kenyan workers abroad

By Agnes Odhiambo in the Standard

“We Kenyans are hard-working people – we just lack jobs or money to start businesses.” This is something you are likely to hear from unemployed Kenyans. So what do they do? Many cross borders in search of employment.

One such Kenyan is 28-year-old Habiba Mohammed. In February, Habiba thought long and hard about migrating to Saudi Arabia for a job as a domestic worker. She told me she had worked in Saudi Arabia between 2005 and 2008, and was mistreated by the recruiter in Kenya and the employer in Saudi Arabia. But after three years without a job back home, she decided to give Saudi Arabia a second try.

Habiba, like the estimated 3,000 other Kenyan women in Saudi Arabia doing domestic work, was entering a labour sector full of risk. Human Rights Watch research has shown that migrant domestic workers are some of the least well-protected workers in the world. Most countries exclude them from labour law protections, such as a minimum wage, limits to work hours, requirements for rest days, and workers’ compensation. Many are forced to work 15 to 18 hours a day, and many employers refuse to pay wages on time and in full, confine their workers in the household, and even physically and sexually abuse their domestic workers.

But Habiba put her trust in a recruitment agent known to one of her close relatives. The Mombasa-based agent, who frequently travelled to Saudi Arabia to deliver domestic workers to potential employers, told her about a nanny job with a rich Saudi family that would pay Sh30,000 ($400) a month, adding that he had the visa ready. She agreed, paid the Sh30,000 ($400) recruitment fee, left her six-year-old daughter with an elderly aunt in Mombasa, and left for Saudi Arabia.

When she arrived in Saudi Arabia, she was in for a shock. “The woman I was going to work for said she had wanted a tutor for her grandson and not a nanny. I told her I didn’t want to go back to Kenya because I had debts and no job, but she insisted she didn’t need a nanny.”

Her recruitment agent promised to find her another job. But this was not to be.

It’s easy for labour agents and recruiters to get away with such abuses. Kenya does little to regulate them, and abusive agents are rarely punished. Habiba had the courage to report the agent to the Kenyan Embassy in Saudi Arabia. The embassy instructed the agent to return the Sh120,000, which he did. However, he did not return the Sh30,000 recruitment fee, and Habiba had to pay for a ticket back to Kenya. The recruitment agent faced no other penalty, and was not prosecuted for sexual harassment. Habiba said the agent was holding four other girls at a house in Saudi Arabia and was abusing them sexually, but the embassy did not investigate.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Government should be doing much more to protect its workers abroad. Currently, it is negotiating a bilateral labour agreement with Saudi Arabia. Experience from other countries shows such agreements can improve the situation for domestic workers by setting a minimum wage or guaranteeing them a day off each week. But these agreements are not enough by themselves. Kenya could also spread information at home to bring about greater awareness about the risks and rights faced by Kenyan women if they choose to migrate and strengthen the services provided to them by its embassies.

Kenya could also do more to rein in unscrupulous recruiters. It should register and monitor recruitment agencies, prohibit them from charging exorbitant recruitment fees, and institute sanctions for those who do.

The writer is a researcher, Women’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch in Nairobi

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