Faced with surplus labour supply, the international labour market presented Kenya with an opportunity to enable its youth to find jobs and improve their livelihoods. It was the perfect opportunity for many Kenyans who couldn’t secure employment locally, especially those who are considered “unemployable” back home because they lack formal education or are semi skilled.
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and United Arab Emirates (UAE) could take up Kenya’s unskilled labour and give them a chance at decent work.
Closure of Middle East market in 2014
But in 2014, the Kenyan government closed the Middle Eastern labour market citing abuse of Kenyan workers abroad. The Ministry of Labour suspended the licenses of all the recruitment agencies and stopped their operations with immediate effect.
All recruitment of domestic workers to the Middle East was frozen immediately.
The then Cabinet Secretary for Labour Kazungu Kambi said that the majority of the agencies were misleading job seekers and the government needed to streamline the industry.
The Donald Kipkorir taskforce
The government believed that these challenges could be resolved through policy, legal and institutional reforms. It set up a taskforce to review Kenya’s labour migration management, interrogate existing programs and policies, and recommend ways to improve labour export so Kenyan migrant workers could be protected against abuse. The goal was to transform the way Kenya went about its labour migration.
The taskforce, led by Donald Kipkorir, did its job. It even benchmarked with other countries such as India and Philippines that had functional labour migration industries.
In September 2015, the taskforce presented its report to the Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Services. Some of the recommendations it made included establishing a national agency to oversee labour migration issues, conducting mandatory pre-departure training and orientation for migrant workers, and posting of labour attachees in identified Kenyan foreign embassies. It also urged the government to establish a Welfare Fund for migrant workers, compulsory insurance.
The taskforce called on the government to sign and implement Bilateral Labour Agreements (BLAs) with labour destination countries. All Kenyan private recruitment agencies were also to undergo a fresh vetting to ensure they were engaging in ethical recruitment of migrant workers.
Bilateral Labour Agreements
Since its inception five years ago, NEA has signed only one BLA, that with Saudi Arabia. Before then, Kenya was deploying labour in all six GCC markets.
“Today we have Saudi Arabia as our only anchor market,” said an agent who sought anonymity. “It’s like NEA was formed to kill labour migration to pave the way for brokers who are doing brisk business’.”
The other two are with UAE and Qatar signed before NEA’s establishment.
The Saudi BLA was signed in 2017 and implemented in 2019.
The authority told parliament that it would conclude BLA’s reviews with three Middle East countries by December 2021. “Between August and December 2021, we will review bilateral labour agreements with Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia to enhance protection of Kenyan migrants,” NEA director-general, Ms Edith Okoki, said.
Industry players claim there have been no progress reports on the same.
A number of recruitment agencies told Labour.Watch that they have never been engaged in stakeholder consultations with regards to BLA reviews and even the new BLA’s being negotiated.
‘’NEA has been promising to open up five other new markets for labour export but they remain empty promises’’. Said a director of a private employment agency based in Nairobi.
The NEA mess up
The formation of NEA was evidence to the fact that the National Employment Bureau (NEB) had failed in its mandate and could not take Kenya to a successful future in labour migration.
The task force’s report was one of the reasons for the formation of the National Employment Authority (NEA). Its secretary, Ms. Edith Okoki, an employee of National Employment Bureau (NEB) would later go on to assume the role of acting Director General at NEA.
Yet NEA has been unable to implement the recommendations of the report as envisaged by the taskforce.
The impact of NEA’s mess up- flawed BLA’s
Recently, Kenya signed a BLA with the UK to deploy nurses. It has turned out that most of those shortlisted failed the requisite English test. Industry players are blaming the Ministry of Labour and NEA for refusing to involve the recruitment agencies who understand the business, some of whom have been deploying nurses to the UK and understand the process.
“The question that arises is why didn’t the ministry foresee the problem of mass failures of the English test? There are already thousands of Kenyans who have attempted and failed the test more than two to five times. Did they expect miracles?’” an agent who supplies nurses to the UK informed Labour.watch.
Labour.watch understands that the National Employment Authority was fully involved in the signing of the BLA with the UK.
The UK BLA should have exempted Kenyan nurses from this exam. ‘’If Ethiopia, whose national language is Amharic was able to get the English language test exemption for its nurses, why didn’t Kenya negotiate one for its nurses?. They cheated our president. Kenya and the UK have very good relations. We can get a better deal’’ said an agent who wished to remain anonymous.
Jamaica and Ethiopia among other countries have negotiated exemptions with the UK government.
No direct business -Agencies at mercy of brokers
“The United Arab Emirates and Qatar labour markets, for example, have been completely taken over by brokers.”
“It’s very difficult for an accredited agency to get business directly from employers in these markets yet Kenya has BLA’s and labour attachees there. Brokers secure jobs from companies and sell them to us at a commission which we must recoup by charging job candidates,” the director of an accredited agency told Labour.Watch.
‘’We are forced to charge migrant workers exorbitant and illegal recruitment fees for job placements in those countries’’ he said.
According to International Labour Organization and International Organization for Migration (IOM) regulations, it’s unethical to charge migrant workers commission for job placement because it impedes decent work initiatives. However, Kenya allows recruiters to charge commissions not exceeding a month’s salary.
Yet some Kenyan migrant workers pay upto to Ksh.150,000 for jobs paying less than Ksh.30,000 per month in Qatar and UAE.
“The gains we made 10 years ago have been eroded. Brokers have made it impossible to engage in ethical recruitment in Qatar and UAE. It’s the workers paying the price for it. A few years back, security guards were earning at least Ksh.80,000 per month. Now it’s as little as Ksh.30,000“.
“Where is NEA? Where is foreign affairs? Where is our government? We pay huge registration fees but get no value for it,” said a disgruntled agent.
Rogue Agents/brokers in Kenya
NEA accredited agencies pay licenses for Ksh. 500,000 yet they are only allowed to deploy workers to three countries; Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE. You would be considered a human trafficker if you deploy workers to Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Afghanistan, Oman. The license is clearly marked with the countries you are allowed to work in. Interestingly, thousands of Kenyans are being deployed by brokers to the same markets that NEA prevents agencies from operating.
Recently, agencies were shocked when NEA issued a bulletin with success stories of Kenyans who worked in countries without BLA’s with Kenya specifically Iraq and Afghanistan, the most dangerous countries in the world yet they are not listed on their license.
The question many are asking is what interest does NEA have in those who deploy Kenyans in such countries? Why does it block accredited agencies from deploying workers in such markets?. It is worth noting that most Kenyan migrant workers in non-BLA countries are deployed directly by brokers. The process is faster unlike BLA countries like Saudi which takes over fifty days.
Despite the high fees they pay to brokers, migrant workers find themselves on their own whenever they face any challenges in those markets.
No rogue agent deploying Kenyans to Saudi Arabia
No rogue agent is allowed to deploy Kenyans to Saudi Arabia because all visas must be physically stamped by the embassy in Nairobi. The embassy stamps visas for agencies that are vetted and accredited by NEA.
There have been distress calls on social media from Kenyan workers in Saudi Arabia citing abuse by employers, salary delays, and being assigned extra duties even in business premises and relatives’ homes against the law.
But the problem is that the workers cannot seek legal redress because contracts do not spell the terms of employment. This is contrary to Kenya’s employment laws.
NEA breaking the law
Labour.Watch got hold of one of the workers’ contracts. There’s no mention of working hours, job description, medical care, or employer changeover among others. All it mentions is the salary the worker will earn per month.
How did NEA, an institution that’s supposed to safeguard the interest of Kenyan employees, approve such a contract?
In 2020, the Acting NEA DG was quoted in a section of the press saying that ‘’NEA doesn’t approve foreign contracts. It’s the work of the Ministry of Labour’’. But labour.watch has confirmed that all contracts for domestic workers are approved by NEA and attested by the Ministry of Labour.
NEA Dancing on the graves of Kenyan migrant workers
At least 93 Kenyan migrant workers have died in Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries since 2019.
“It may look like ninety three is too few compared to the number of workers we send abroad, but even one life lost is one life too many,” Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja told the Senate recently.
Other migrant workers continue to face sexual, physical, and emotional abuse from their employers in Saudi Arabia. Harun Ambenje, the former chairperson of Association of Skilled Migrant Agencies of Kenya (ASMAK), believes this would be resolved if NEA had acted at the right time to review the BLA with Saudi Arabia in November 2019.
“During my tenure, we wrote several letters and had meetings with NEA to push for labour BLAs reviews. The acting DG NEA refused to act then. It’s sad that nothing has been done about it to date. Some of those lives could have been saved. We should not blame Saudi Arabia alone. NEA has wounded abd killed mothers, sisters, friends, daughters and devasted families. They must take full responsibility.”
“What NEA is doing is simply dancing on the graves of Kenyans who have died in Saudi Arabia.”
“We don’t see reports of similar challenges from Philippines or Indian migrant workers because their countries negotiated proper BLAs and they follow through to ensure implementation.”
A recruitment agent told Labour.Watch that it’s difficult for agencies to address the plight of the workers they send abroad because of bottlenecks from NEA.
“We get a registration certificate that’s only valid for one year. Having the certificate renewed can take up to six months. During this waiting period, you are not operational because you are not duly registered. What do you do when a worker approaches you saying that they are having difficulties in Saudi?”
There are also communication and logistical challenges considering that Kenya has only one labour attache in Saudi Arabia yet the workers are deployed all over the country. The Kenyan embassy easily gets overwhelmed. When the workers take up their complaints with Saudi agents, the agents side with the employers to avoid losing business.
“The end result is that these girls end up in deportation centers or Saudi jails whenever they lodge any complaints. They therefore resort to running away from their employers and die in the streets. Why can’t we have a consulate in every city, with a dedicated lawyer to address the complaints of our workers, like the Phillipines does?”
Security Bond a scam
The security bond can only be issued by only one insurance company in Kenya. The families of migrant workers who are subjected to abuse or die abroad often have to fundraise to bring their loved ones back home.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is often accused of abdicating their responsibilities on Kenyan citizens. Do they know there is a bond to cover such?
Yet NEA collects a Ksh.1.5 million security bond from each of the 457 registered recruitment agencies intended to cushion migrant workers who face abuse abroad. Ideally, the money should go into the welfare of workers and the repatriation of mortal remains or Kenyan migrant workers in distress.
Investigations conducted by labour.watch found out that none of the Kenyans who faced distress benefitted from the bond. Neither did those families who lost their loved ones. The bond has never been redeemed.
Recently, an agent who asked about the redemption of the bond was threatened with closure or cancellation of their license if the bond was to be redeemed.
Our question is, why is this bond a requirement if it’s not serving its purpose? Does the kenyan embassy or MOFA understand the existence of such a cover for Kenyans? Who is the real beneficiary of the insurance bond?
Recruitment agencies also pay a registration fee of Ksh.500,000. The cheques are written to the Director General of NEA, not the treasury. This means that the money is spent at source.
Where does the money go?
“There’s a lot of movement from NEA which they confuse for progress. They are in one meeting or the other every week but the industry is yet to see any tangible progress.”
Agencies who speak against the ineffectiveness of NEA are often victimized and denied registration certificates.
“Many agencies have been denied license renewals by NEA. Only one director has had the courage to challenge the authority in court. The acting Director General was found guilty of contempt of court for failing to register the agency despite court orders.”
The labour migration industry potential
At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the international labour market performing at less than five percent of its capacity, Kenya still managed to send over 50,000 domestic workers to Saudi Arabia and more than 10,000 other professionals to other markets.
The foreign remittances from labour export in 2021 exceeded that of coffee and tea despite the challenges the industry is currently grappling with.
If Kenya could attain the same level of standards and respect as other countries like the Philippines, how much more would the labour migration industry contribute to the economy and help to ease the burden of unemployment on Kenyan youth?
Laxity by the National Employment Authority is not only causing job seekers employment opportunities abroad but also hurting the Kenyan economy.