The ordeal of Kenyans in Arab 'slave markets'
Kenyans looking to work in the Middle East as domestic workers face harsh mistreatment including beatings, demands to convert to Islam, low pay and poor living conditions.
By Line : Mugumo Munene
Posted : 19-08-2012
Last Modified : 23-08-2012
The ordeal of Kenyans in Arab 'slave markets'
Mwanaisha Hussein stands forlornly in a queue at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reception. She, like many other visitors to the building, is headed to an office on the second floor where only three people are allowed in at a time.
Each appears lost in thought. Mwanaisha, as I would learn, is not her real name. She was approached by a recruitment agency in Nairobi – where she worked as a store clerk – and promised a better paying job doing house chores in Saudi Arabia.
She warmed to the idea. That was October last year. But there was a hitch. She had no passport. No problem, said the recruiter. All it would take is Sh3,040, the official fee paid to the Immigration Department.
Mwanaisha submitted her passport size photographs. She was asked for “a little money here and a little money there” and in no time, was prepared for her flight.
“The first time I saw what was supposed to be my passport, it had the name Mwanaisha Hussein. I was at the airport and I had never been to the Immigration department.
"I had never travelled before and I thought that this was the name of the person who I would meet on arrival. All the same, better things waited and I travelled,” Mwanaisha told the Sunday Nation this week. She would only speak on condition that her real identity would not be revealed.
When Mwanaisha arrived in Jeddah, she was met by the person who would be her employer. She told the employer her real name, but the employer insisted on Mwanaisha. She had been prepared back in Kenya and taught how to wear Muslim apparel. She had to be fully covered at all times.
“I started to work and everything went smoothly until after two months. My employer told me that I had to convert to the Muslim faith. I said ‘no way’ and insisted that I was a Christian. That day, the beatings began. They would happen nearly every day,” Mwanaisha said.
She said the employer’s son would come home every day from his workplace in a bank and insist that Mwanaisha coverts to Islam. The more she resisted the pressure, the worse the beatings got, she said.
She would be locked up in a room with no bedding and no furniture for days. After five days she would be released to take a shower and eat, and locked up again.
“One night, he came home at about 2 a.m. and beat me so badly that I decided I had to escape. I knew attempting to escape could even end in death, but death was lurking anyway,” Mwanaisha said.
Nose bleeding from the ordeal, she figured that the only way out of the house on the third floor was to break loose the air conditioning system and jump through the vent.
Jump she did, landing on the ground in the neighbour’s compound with a thud. She broke an arm and a leg, and passed out.
Mwanaisha says she came to about an hour later.
“Luckily, my employers had not heard the commotion. And neither did I wake up the neigbhbours. Had they heard me, I’m sure I would not be here telling you this story,” she said.
She crawled to the gate on all fours, struggled to open the gate and slumped outside. “A motorist who was passing by stopped. He asked me what the problem was. I told him. He called the police. They came and brought an ambulance.
"They were kind enough to take me to hospital but would never hear me out on the torture I had suffered in the hands of their fellow countrymen,” Mwanaisha said.
She got treatment in hospital but when it was time for her discharge, she had nowhere to go and no money.
A social worker got her transport to the Kenyan Embassy in Jeddah where she lived in a makeshift house for a month before she could get an air ticket and documents to travel home.
“I get these cases every day,” Ms Nyambura Kamau, the head of the division of host country and consular affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Sunday Nation. “I’m called all the time about these issues.”
As if on cue, her telephone rang. This time, it was the Kenyan embassy in Tripoli. A Kenyan woman had been arrested there in a group that was trying to cross by boat into Europe.
The embassy official who called wanted the ministry to inform the family of the woman in trouble in North Africa that they had to send $500 (Sh40,000) to settle the fine and an air ticket.
Cases from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Lebanon where there are about 4,000 Kenyan domestic workers fill Ms Kamau’s in-tray. A few additional cases are filed by drivers, Ms Kamau said.
In the last year she has dealt with about 900 of them. Of these, 445 were assisted to return home, 104 were successfully arbitrated, 310 are still pending and 29 Kenyans have been sent to jail. (READ: We don’t oppress foreigners, says Saudi envoy)
Those leaving home are always driven by the pursuit of a good life and greener pastures. The trouble starts right from the recruiting stage. When a potential employer wishes to hire, they contact agents in their home country where, Ms Kamau says, they are required to pay up to $3,000.
This money is meant to cover air fare and other preparatory matters such as medical tests as well as agency fees in Kenya and in the host country. But, as Mwanaisha says, she was required to cough up more money to “get processed”.
In the meantime, someone was breaking the law with abandon — getting a passport for the desperate woman — only to send her away into slavery.
Foreign Affairs PS Mwangi Thuita says that the racket involved in taking domestic workers out of the country is big and sometimes, potential employers spend up to Sh1 million to get people to work for them.
“It’s a major international racket,” Mr Thuita said. According to investigations, the racket involves diplomats from the affected states and even airlines looking for business in addition to Kenyan agents and those in the receiving states.
Once in employment, many of the women have complained about physical and sexual harassment and being overworked.
They may be required to rise at 4 am and end their day at midnight. They are also denied any contract that they can fall back on in case of a dispute. “I have a baby at the Kenyan Embassy in Qatar that we should bring home,” said Ms Kamau.
A recruit, Ms Kamau said, was issued with a medical certificate that said she was fit to undertake domestic chores. But three months after she arrived, Ms Kamau says, a pregnancy showed.
The employee carried it to term and got leave — to go and deliver and return to work. But there was a hitch; the employer said that the baby could not be brought back to the place of work.
“So, after delivery and some time in hospital, the baby was released to our embassy in Qatar and I now have to arrange to bring the baby home,” Ms Kamau said.
The case points to slave-like working conditions. For starters, workers will go for long without pay or on meagre earnings as employers deduct the $3,000 (Sh240,000) or more that they have to pay upfront for air tickets and preliminary expenses.
“This comes as a shock to most employees who are never told before they leave Kenya that this will be expected of them,” Mwanaisha said.
The countries involved only grant entry visas to Kenyans travelling to their countries. That means that if they want to leave and return home they will need an exit visa.
But there are more hurdles; a recruit’s passport is surrendered to authorities at the airport of entry. In lieu of the passport, the recruit is issued with a local ID.
For one to leave, the employer has to write a letter to the recruiting agency that will in turn write to the government who may then issue an exit visa and return the passport to the bearer.
A Kenyan would be arrested and taken to the deportation centre, from which the Kenyan embassy is contacted and asked to make travel arrangements.
Ms Kamau, who has just returned from the area on a fact-finding mission, said a recruit who is rejected by her employer on arrival is almost always in trouble.
“Remember that there was $3,000 that was paid for that person’s air fare and other expenses. According to the recruiting agencies in those countries, that money has to be recovered and the only way that can happen is for them to hold you in a place called a maktaba, awaiting a suitable employer,” Ms Kamau said. “It looks like a slave market.”
Ms Kamau says that the cases they have been handling prompted the government to ban recruitment as they work out a plan with the interested countries on how workers can get better deals.
Currently, all legitimate Kenyan agents are required to sign a bond with the Ministry of Labour, which also verifies documents and contracts before a recruit can be allowed to leave the country.
Copies of the documents are then taken to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has begun keeping a database of all Kenyans travelling for jobs abroad.
“We would encourage people to register with us or the nearest embassy or consulate. If they are in a country where there is no Kenyan embassy or consulate, they should register with the nearest British embassy or consulate. Every passport holder outside the country should do that,” Ms Kamau said.
“Many people who haven’t done that end up calling home instead of calling the embassy for help if they are in trouble.”
Mwanaisha told the Sunday Nation that the holding and detention centres are literally slave markets where recruits are traded as though they were commodities.
“The conditions are poor, and there is little food. It’s just horrible. I left a job here in Kenya and wasted eight months of my life. Not only that, I nearly died. I’d never go back. I’d never recommend it for anyone. I’d rather make Sh100 a day in my country.”
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