A Kenyan woman is accusing her Saudi employer of throwing her out of a third floor window, breaking her legs and hands. Another maid, just rescued by relatives, said she had to live on dog food because her employers neither fed her nor allowed her out of the house.
Ms Fatma Athman, of Kisauni, Mombasa, returned to the country last week with broken limbs and stories of near-slavery in Saudi Arabia where she was employed as a maid last May. She was lucky, she said, she landed in a swimming pool and not on the pavement. Now she is dependent on others to help her even with the simplest of chores.
“I and one of my friends were asked by Saudis who visited Kenya eight months ago to go with them. We organised everything through the Kenyan embassy — our agent — and we got documents to travel to the Middle East on May 2 last year,” she said. On arrival, she said, she was discriminated against and required to work 22 hours a day.
She also says she would be subjected to a torrent of abuse for the slightest mistake. “I used to sleep for only two hours and I ate left-overs. That was really slavery,” she said in tears. Susan Wanjiku, 29, has a story of similar mistreatment. The mother of two was promised a salary of Sh16,000 to work as a maid in Jeddah. “I thought I would make money and come back home when I had enough to sustain me and my children,” she said during an interview at Nation Centre at the weekend.
On arrival in Jeddah, she was taken to her new place of work and instructed to immediately start work. “I was shown 16 rooms to clean,” she said. Known as Shakala (a house help in Arabic), her work started at 3am and ended at 11pm. This was her daily routine for the three months she was in Jeddah.
“I was to be joined by my husband who had been promised a driver’s job, but I kept praying that he changes his mind,” she said. “Luckily he did. He did not have money and this helped... We could have both suffered.” Ms Alice Wakio, a school dropout from Gatanga in Kenya's Central Province, said that she lived on dog food because her employer neither fed her nor let her out of the house.
“There is no food there. They tell us to wait for them to eat first then they give us the leftovers,” said Alice. On days when there were no leftovers, she would turn to dog food. “Their children insult us. We were never let out of the house and for the three months I was there (in Jeddah), I did not see the sun. I only saw it when I landed in Nairobi. I fainted on alighting,” she said.
Both Susan and Alice were recruited by an agent they identified as Margaret, whom they said is based at the Saudi embassy in Nairobi. They were charged Sh15,000 placement fees. When the Nation called the agent, she said she had a few vacancies. “You can come now with the money,” she said. “We have few vacancies left.”
She hang up
She hang up when we asked whether she was aware that some of the maids she got jobs were stranded in Saudi Arabia. The maids said there are as many as 100 young Kenyan women living in the streets of Jeddah after being thrown out.
On Monday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that “a number of Kenyans” were stranded in Saudi Arabia. Susan and Alice said they were rescued by relatives back home who raised their air fare. Their dreams of a well-paying job, they said, was just a mirage. “It’s bad there. Don’t be cheated,” they said of the extravagant promises of good jobs in Middle East.
Fatma claimed the children of her employer also sexually exploited her. She said she worked for five months, but was paid for only one. She was given no explanation. On the day her employer pushed her out the window, she said she was hanging clothes on the line. “I heard my employer saying ‘you are better off dead, you are better dead’”.
She plunged into the pool three floors down and was rescued by the police. After a week in hospital, she was deported. “I left Saudi Arabia without luggage, not even my clothes. What I took is the few drugs I was given at the hospital.”
Her father, Mr Athman Ali, is demanding that the Foreign Affairs ministry and the Kenyan Embassy in Saudi Arabia seek justice for his daughter. The stories of mistreatment come just days after two families revealed that their daughters were being held in Saudi deportation centres after they differed with their employers. The two, Ms Esha Noor and Fatuma Shabira, have been at the centre for seven weeks after the Kenyan embassy failed to process their documents to travel back home.
Ministry officials said about 3,000 women from Kenya are currently in Saudi Arabia. They said both the embassy in Saudi Arabia and the ministry had received complaints from Kenyan maids. “I can confirm to you that we have received such claims. We are receiving claims of unpaid wages, mistreatment and so far we have helped bring back a few,” said an officers by telephone.
The ministry’s Middle East director Ken Vikisia said the ministry was working to repatriate those being mistreated. “We have received the complaints from the two families, and we have ordered our diplomats to work on the issue,” he said. He said several people have been lured to Saudi Arabia “only to be turned into slaves when they get there.”