MODERN DAY SLAVERY ”MIDDLE EAST DOMESTIC LABOUR EXPORT UNBAN UNWISE”

By Paul Adhoch

On 3rd December 2013, the Jubilee government quietly reviewed the ban placed on the export of domestic workers to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf Countries. The Grand Coalition government had banned the same in September 2012, following hue and cry by many exploited returnee in the preceding years. In undertaking this action, the Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary did no communicate any new guidelines or modalities that have been put in place to warrant their action. Whatever informed the government, there is need to understand the context of the ban and the subsequent actions taken by the Kibaki administration.

Let us contextualize this situation. The Persian Gulf countries have a visa system called the Kafala. The system ties the employee to the employer for the duration of the contract, often two years, which is prone to abuse and exploitation. Whereas there may be many good employers, often, employees are overworked, underpaid, their passports confiscated, their communication back home restricted, no leave nor allowances for such and no off duties, local contacts curtailed for the entire period of their contracts – in many cases at least two years, In some instances, the employer forbids the employee from going back home allegedly to repay some lost hours or household item destroyed or some ruse of a similar nature. An employee who runs away to seek help from such exploitation would often find themselves in detention camps as undocumented workers without much hope of assistance – This is, by any definition, modern day slavery.

In 2008, Bahrain was the first country to claim to repeal the kafala system at which time the Labor Minister equated it to “slavery”. Effective August 2009, there were changes in the Labor Market Regulations, allowing among others, the employee to give quit notices of up to 3 months, and change employees and even nature of work, review contracts against what they signed for, renegotiate terms and conditions and so on and so forth. Thus Bahrain became a “free country” as opposed to the other emirates and kingdoms in the Persian Gulf. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for instance, the employer must give explicit permission to an employee for legitimacy status in the country. This has often been abused by some unscrupulous employers well in contravention of Article 13 of the United Nations Conventions of Human Rights.

Due to the impending FIFA world Cup 2022, Qatar has been forced to review its labor practices following pressure from the football body and human rights organizations. As at 2010, 94% of workers in manual jobs were from the Far East and often faced exploitative work practices, including need for permission to open bank accounts, rent a house, or even just make a short travel to visit friends. The situation has been remedied by the FIFA program.

At this moment in time, and perhaps this is what informed the Foreign Affairs Office in Nairobi, there is a huge opportunity for domestic labour and low skilled labour in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, besides the lower cadre workers in the rest of the Middle East. In KSA for instance, just recently, the Kingdom expelled close to 139,000 low cadre Ethiopian workers, including 45,000 female domestic workers considered undocumented. At the same time, Qatar is busy shaping up for the FIFA 2012 games and need many semi-skilled and unskilled fundis, hence the frenzy by Middle East based and local Employment Agents to recruit for this labour gap.

In the face of all this, we wish to make the following proposals: While the ban may not have served much purpose anyway, the current unbanning may not be wise either. However, the Cabinet secretaries for Foreign Affairs and Labour matters should concertedly ensure that all domestic workers and other workers exported to the Middle East and to any foreign country for that matter are regularized through the relevant Kenyan Embassies. The recent South Sudan scenario may have served as a good reference case. Secondly; that recruitment agents are compelled to translate terms and conditions of employment and ensure these are understood by prospective employees, including exit clauses in the event of any exploitative circumstances. Third that the government uses its bilateral and multilateral leverage to protect citizens through the establishment of a Labour Market Regulatory Authority in the line with the Bahrain example rather than have a kafala-like arrangement for Kenyan workers. In fact, Kenyans are basically running the Aviation and Hospitality insustry in some emirate countries at middle level management; something that can be pursued at government to government level to ensure job opportunity for many qualified citizens. Finally, that the Kenya Association of Private Employment Agencies seek to root out unscrupulous agents who use falsehood to recruit workers in contravention of the katiba and the Counter Trafficking in Persons Act 2010.

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