Melvin Kang’ereha and at least 92 other Kenyans have died in the Middle East since 2019, according to reports from the Ministry of Labour. Many others have suffered mistreatment, physical abuse, and sexual harassment from their employers.
A Kenyan domestic worker in Lebanon had bleach poured over her head while another in Saudi Arabia was sexually assaulted repeatedly by her employer, as per The Standard. There have also been several videos and social media posts in circulation of Kenyan domestic workers in the Middle East decrying abuse by their employers.
The Labour and Social Welfare Committee told the Senate that parliamentarians equally receive distress calls and appeals to help repatriate back home relatives and friends suffering abroad.
Visit to the Gulf region
The committee, led by Nairobi senator Johnson Sakaja, together with the Ministry of Labour officials made a visit to the Gulf region between April 10 and 20, 2021, with the goal of establishing “firsthand the goings on in key migrant destinations.”
In its report, the committee said it traveled only to Saudi Arabia and Dubai in light of Covid-19 travel restrictions in other countries such as Qatar.
The goal of the committee was to review existing opportunities and assess obstacles for improved processes and labour migration governance; and provide practical policy, legislative and administrative solutions to the processes.
According to the committee, as much as labour migration was playing a key role in skills development and economic development through remittances, there was an urgent need to protect the constitutional rights and wellbeing of Kenyans working abroad.
“It may look like 93 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 when tabling the report.
The senate resolution
The committee said its investigations revealed that Kenya lacked comprehensive policy and legal framework to govern labour migration.
“Labour migration to key labour destinations in the Middle East has been ongoing in the absence of formal agreement or memorandum of understanding (MoUs),” part of its report read.
Kenya has only two Bilateral Labour Agreements (BLAs) signed with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabia BLA was due for review in 2019.
Kenyan migrant workers in the Gulf region do not also have access to formal mechanisms for safeguarding their rights and well-being. This includes assistance from the Kenyan consulate in foreign countries.
The committee expressed its concern for the deteriorating conditions of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.
As a result, the committee recommended the immediate closure of the Saudi Arabian labour market until certain bare minimums were met by the industry players. These include establishing the status of all Kenyan migrant workers in Saudi Arabia prisons and deportation centers, repatriating all detained Kenyans back home, putting up full-fledged labour offices and safe houses in Jeddah and Riyadh, a fresh vetting and registration of all private recruitment agencies in Kenya.
“Senate recommendations impractical”
The director of a recruitment agency who spoke to Labour.Watch on condition of anonymity termed the recommendations as impractical.
“They are good and can help to streamline the industry, but demanding that all of them have to be implemented before the market is reopened is impractical,” he said.
According to the director, what the committee should have done is make short-term recommendations that can be implemented immediately and long-term ones that will require time to put in place.
“For example, establishing the status of Kenyans currently detained in Saudi Arabia and bringing them back home can be done in two weeks. We can also set up a database of all domestic workers currently in Saudi and establish lines of communication with them within a month.”
“But saying that all recruitment agencies have to be vetted and registered afresh before the market is reopened is far-fetched. What happens to the workers we took there while we are closed? Will the government be able to look after them through the single Labour Attache we have in the whole of Saudi Arabia. That office is already overwhelmed by the few complaints it gets to handle.”
The director also said that it may be difficult to establish labour offices and safe houses in other Saudi Arabian cities due to budgetary and time constraints.
“Where will the money for additional full-fledged labour offices and safe houses come from considering that the 2021/22 budget has already been passed? The staff to be forwarded to these offices will also need to be vetted by parliament which will go on recess soon ahead of the 2022 elections.”
Proposed solutions from stakeholders ignored!
Labour.Watch has in its possession several letters from various industry stakeholders to government agencies proposing solutions to the challenges troubling labour migration in Kenya. There are also minutes of a consultative meeting between the Association of Skilled Migrants Agencies of Kenya (ASMAK) and the National Employment Authority (NEA) in which a number of solutions aimed at streamlining the industry were discussed.
For example, it was proposed that NEA conducts regular impromptu inspection visits to ensure there are no foreigners running recruitment agencies through proxies.
According to a Kenya Association of Private Employment Agencies (KAPEA) letter in December 2020 to the Labour CS, NEA interviewing directors of recruitment agencies instead of relying on documents to vet the agencies would help weed out foreign-owned agencies.
Furthermore, NEA was to involve the National Intelligence Service (NIS) to run background checks on agencies to avoid accrediting agencies involved in crimes such as human trafficking.
The Authority was also to establish guidelines for private recruitment agencies to follow when taking up cases of mistreatment and death of workers they send abroad.
ASMAK also wrote letters to the Ministry of Labour and the Parliamentary Committee on Labour & Social Welfare on May 4, 2020, outlining various ways to streamline the labour migration industry.
“What NEA has done is abandon all its other mandates to focus where it thinks the money is,” Harun Ambenje, the former Association of Skilled Migrant Agencies of Kenya (ASMAK) chairperson, told Labour.Watch.
According to Ambeje, NEA should be held responsible for the death of 93 Kenyans who have died in Gulf countries. NEA is dancing on the graves of Kenyans, he said.
“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 and killed mothers, sisters, friends, daughters and devastated families. They must take full responsibility.”
Both the Parliamentary and Senate labour committees are aware of NEA’s complicity in the issues facing Kenyan workers in the Middle East. Why hasn’t any government institutions sanctioned NEA despite all these issues?
“I have met Johnson Sakaja, the chairperson of the Labour and Social Welfare Committee, and he knows the problem. Why is he not talking about NEA incompetence?” Ambeje asked.
The proposal to close the Saudi market is knee-jerk and will hurt Kenya more than it will help to safeguard the welfare of Kenyan workers. Kenya is already losing out to other countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Philippines, and Indonesia that also export labour to the Middle East. By the time we’ll be ready to reopen the market, the train will have already left the station! That’s how Kenya’s labour markets reduced from eight in 2010 to just two since the inception of NEA.
Before closing the Saudi labour market, the Senate should have recommended the shut down of NEA and firing of the Labour CS, Simon Chelugui.
There are already a number of petitions by youth organizations calling for the disbandment of NEA. Others are calling for the senior leadership at the authority to be sent home and a new team brought in. Despite acknowledging receipt of the petitions, the office of the president is yet to act.
Is the presidency happy with the status quo and events at NEA?