Recently, a vernacular TV station ran a report on Kenyan women domestic workers, with interviews of some who had worked in the Gulf and others who were preparing to leave for Saudi Arabia.
The stories attracted tens of responses, apparently from the domestic workers in a number of those countries, among them Lebanon, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Many gave their responses on social media. This, hopefully, could be an indication that those domestic workers are able to access their mobile phones. It could also be an indication that things have or are changing and the rights of, especially, domestic workers are now being respected.
In recent years, stories of women returning to Kenya with harrowing tales of torture, sexual and physical abuse in the hands of ruthless employers in the Middle East have been a constant feature in the media. Worse, there were disturbing reports of women who returned home in coffins due to torture, especially in Saudi Arabia. Reports of this notoriety were more prominent from around 2014.
It is because of such reports that the government slapped a ban on further migrations of such workers to Saudi Arabia. Kenya returned to the drawing board and, together with Riyadh, signed an agreement putting in place a raft of measures that they believed would not only ensure the migrant workers’ human rights and dignity were respected, but that they would also work in a conducive environment and at an agreed minimum wage.
This included ensuring that these workers kept their mobile phones round the clock. This is important because it means that should there be a case of mistreatment, one would be in a position to seek help from the Kenyan Embassy as well as alert their relatives back home.
With the agreement in place, the ban on migration to Saudi Arabia was lifted early this year. As a result, Kenyans are flocking in droves to this country for domestic work, confident that the government will protect them. A visit to government-authorised and vetted employment recruitment agencies and institutions offering home care and management as well as pre-departure information are evidence of this. You will see tens of women trying to fulfil legal requirements to travel.
Recently, I paid a visit to the East Africa Institute of Homecare Management in Githurai, Nairobi, and had a chat with a number of women, most of whom are headed to Saudi Arabia. Some are returning after dehumanising experiences in the past. In fact, most had returned home empty-handed. I was keen to know why one would want to return to a situation, far from home, that dehumanised them to those levels. They had a similar answer; involvement by government and the new measures given as well as an enhanced minimum wage and safeguards against abuse.
That is why the government must not just work in silence but also be firm in having the measures it has put in place observed to the letter. For instance, the pledge to have labour attaches in all embassies must be fulfilled and so should the commitment to have shelters for women running away from abusive employers.
Indications so far, and feedback, are that the measures are working. Officials of some key non-governmental organisations in related fields say they are yet to get distress calls from migrant workers who left for Saudi Arabia through government-registered agents since May. However, they still receive distress calls from a number of those who left earlier, to different countries in the Middle East. Last month, emotional relatives of three young women narrated to journalists how the three migrant workers were stranded in Qatar for weeks, after they ran away from abusive employers.
It is important that the government comes out to protect Kenyans who ventured there before the new measures return home and prevail upon those countries to treat our people with dignity. Further, it is now more critical for the government to also sign similar agreements with other Gulf countries such as Qatar, Lebanon and Bahrain to ensure all migrant workers are protected.
Disturbing reports of rogue agents and brokers circumventing these laws to continue sending domestic workers to the Middle East illegally must also be stopped.
I have had the opportunity to peep into a WhatsApp group discussion of Kenyans in the Middle East, who for the first time are able to share experiences because they have access to their phones. Government has to be vigilant in enforcing its new rules and help these Kenyans enjoy their jobs.
Ms Rugene is a Consulting Editor [email protected] @nrugene