According to a report from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Kenya, in the past two years, 89 Kenyans working as domestic workers have died in Saudi Arabia. According to Saudi officials, the deaths were due to suicide, cardiac arrest, and natural deaths. However, autopsies conducted in Kenya suggested that torture and other human rights abuses had occurred.
Most of these abuses are perpetrated under an exploitative Saudi Arabia Kafala system that provides the employer extensive control over the employee. The Kafala system also enables the buying and selling of domestic workers openly through social media. Sadly, the Kenyan government has done less to help Kenyans facing abuse.
Rights groups, labor organizations and governments around the world must advocate for the end of the highly oppressive Kafala System. Equally, the Kenyan government should fast-track the establishment of the labor protection infrastructure, such as official labor and welfare offices both in Kenya and Saudi Arabia.
Kenyan migration to Gulf countries
Since the 1970s, many high-skilled Kenyans have migrated to Western countries for better opportunities. However, the migration of low-skilled workers to Saudi Arabia began in 2013. The migration of Kenyans to Saudi was accelerated after Ethiopia temporarily banned the deployment of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia due to human rights violations. According to the Kenyan minister of foreign affairs, by 2022, over 100,000 Kenyans were working in Saudi Arabia in different capacities.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have come under heavy criticism over the use of an old-age Kafala system. The system ties the legal residency of the migrant worker to their employer for a specific period. The system also allows employers to confiscate workers’ passports. The workers are forced to work long hours without pay while enduring abuse. Sadly, this system meant that workers were forbidden to return to their countries.
While some Gulf countries, such as Qatar, have essentially caved into the international pressure to end this Kafala system, others, such as Saudi Arabia, are yet to scrape it. Over the years, condemnation of the poor human rights record in Saudi has been chiefly vocal with no concrete actions. The international community must refrain from condemning human rights abuses with words but implement a series of actions to address the issue. Such measures should entail boycotting Saudi products and events or expos, trade fairs, and even sporting events. Boycotts, especially in sports, have effectively reduced Saudi Arabia’s ability to sportwash its poor human rights record.
Further, using sanctions targeting government officials and companies associated with poor human rights records is an alternative tool. Such sanctions could be made possible through the European Union Global Human Rights Sanctions Mechanism (EUGHRSM). The EUGHRSM is a mechanism of the Council of the European Union to punish personnel from non-EU countries responsible for gross human rights violations.
On the other hand, there must be the establishment and implementation of labor protection infrastructure. An example of labor protection infrastructure includes the establishment of safe shelter initiatives. The Kenyan embassy in Riyadh can set up secret “safe houses” where maids can seek refuge from abusive employers. At the same time, diplomats extract unpaid wages and passports – usually withheld by Saudi employers – before flying them home.
Besides providing safe houses, establishing labor and warfare offices that can respond to abuse allegations is crucial. These offices should also offer legal aid to victims of abuse by providing the worker’s legal representation in case of a dispute with the employer. More importantly, labor and welfare offices should be well-staffed and funded to handle the high number of harassment cases. Besides putting in place the labor protection infrastructure, the MFA should work towards having a proper database on migrant workers abroad to keep track of them.
Equally, the government must crack down on illegal recruitment centers and ensure these centers are registered and can provide the welfare of workers. As of 2020, at least 100 recruitment agencies were operating illegally in Kenya. Rogue recruitment agencies have been known to include deception about the nature and conditions of the job and even provide improper travel documents. One way of regulating recruitment agencies is by having routine and random check-ups of the recruitment agencies to verify that they have complied with the laws. Additionally, at the point of departure, an employment contract should be scrutinized and evaluated. In scrutinizing the contract, the immigration officer should ensure its compliance with the provisions of the Employment Act to approve travel.
Further, the Labour Institutions (Private Employment Agencies) Regulations (2016) – a law regulating recruitment centers – do not address penalties for non-compliant recruitment agents. Without fines, recruitment centers seldom comply with the registration requirements. Reviewing this law in parliament to add a clause that provides for penalties is required.
There is a need to stop the culture of reaction to situations. Instead, the government must cultivate a culture of ensuring systems work effectively. Such an efficient system would curb the suffering of our people in Saudi Arabia.
David Marii is a writing fellow at the African Liberty.