Kenyan Women Speak Out About Kafala Exploitation in Gulf States

Kenyan migrant workers gather on January 11 at their country's consulate in Beirut to demand repatriation / credit: Middle East Eye / Matt Kynaston
Kenyan migrant workers gather on January 11 at their country’s consulate in Beirut to demand repatriation / credit: Middle East Eye / Matt Kynaston

KIENI, Kenya—After traversing rivers, hills, valleys, sharp bends, and swaths of uncultivated land in the drier parts of central Kenya, this reporter arrived in early November to hear Anne Nyambura’s story of abuse at the hands of a Saudi employer.

Nyambura is a 53-year-old mother of five. In 2018, she traveled to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, with the promise of being able to send money back home with what she would earn as a domestic worker. But unable to withstand the working conditions, she breached the contract after a year.

“I was allowed to eat for only five minutes, given a lot of work and paid peanuts, contrary on what we had agreed on the contract,” the former domestic worker said. In Saudi Arabia, Nyambura expected to take home $800 per month. Instead, she received $170, or less than 25 percent of the agreed-upon amount. Meanwhile, the same role in Kenya would have earned her $150 each month. And, so, she returned to her homeland emaciated and poorer than before.

“It was a waste of time,” said Nyambura, who is among 100,000 Kenyans who have traveled to the Gulf countries to work, but whose dreams of earning to support their families have placed them in dangerous circumstances.

International Domestic Workers Federation held a demonstration on June 6, 2014, in front of the United Nations regarding migrant workers' rights in Qatar / credit: Fish / IDWF
The International Domestic Workers Federation held a demonstration on June 6, 2014, in front of the United Nations regarding migrant workers’ rights in Qatar / credit: Fish / IDWF

‘Biting Poverty’ Feeds Kafala System

Now back in the Kieni constituency in Kenya’s Nyeri County, Nyambura told Toward Freedom she had nowhere to report the dispute with her Saudi employer because the decades-old Kafala system was at work.

Gulf Cooperation Council states, such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Arab states of Jordan and Lebanon have abided by the Kafala system to regulate the relationships of migrant workers with employers (“kafeels”), according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). It has been in place since the 1950s. That is when countries that had experienced a construction boom after discovering oil under their feet needed skilled laborers that they could not find among their lesser educated populations. However, migrant workers have for years aired complaints about the system. “Often the kafeel exerts further control over the migrant worker by confiscating their passport and travel documents, despite legislation in some destination countries that declares this practice illegal,” the ILO states in a policy brief.

Nyambura told Toward Freedom her employer did exactly that, plus took hold of her identification card and mobile phone, among other items.

“The issue of documents being confiscated by the employers is under Saudi Arabian law and we cannot be blamed for that,” said Mwalimu Mwaguzo, a chairperson of the Pwani Welfare Association (PWA), an alliance of 20 private recruitment agencies based in the coastal city of Mombasa. “The Kafala system that people are complaining about was introduced with the Saudi Arabian government to curb running away of domestic workers from their employer and we, as agents, have no authority to eliminate the system.”

But that is not all, according to Nyambura.

“The employer was everything and you, as a worker, have nowhere to take him in case of assault,” she told Toward Freedom, lamenting that sometimes she would get slaps and blows from the employer and that she was denied food for a couple of days.

“Biting poverty fueled by lack of opportunities is compelling many Kenyan women to travel to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to search for greener pastures, but reaching there many regret,” she said in a low, angry tone. “Returning home becomes an added burden.”

Making matters worse, at least 89 Kenyans—most of whom were domestic workers—died in Saudi Arabia between 2020 and 2021, according to Kenyan Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau. Their bodies were returned to Kenya or buried as unknown persons in Gulf countries. Plus, organs had been removed from some of the bodies, Kamau reported.

Mwaguzo told Toward Freedom detainees in Saudi deportation centers are either on the run from their employer or are involved in prostitution.

Remittances Flow to Kenya

According to the ILO, the migration and employment system implemented by most countries in the Arab states region is based on a relatively liberal entry policy, restricted rights, and a limited duration of employment contracts and visas.

Kafeels are liable for the conduct and safety of the migrant they bring into the country, and they can exert control over a migrant’s movement and employment.

The ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR), which is responsible for evaluating the application of international labor standards, has noted “the kafala system may be conducive to the exaction of forced labor and has requested that the governments concerned protect migrant workers from abusive practices.”

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has said the situation in Qatar had worsened as it prepared to host the 2022 World Cup using migrant labor.

According to an article published by Global Policy Journal, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) estimates more than 2.1 million workers in the Gulf from around the world are at risk of exploitation and work under inhumane conditions. In the past, some countries had halted deployment of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia. Such bans improved working conditions, increased salaries and lessened mistreatment.

If the governments of Kenya and other countries halted to deploy their workers in the Gulf, could things change?

Migration to the Gulf continues providing thousands of job opportunities and billions of dollars in remittances. Around $124 billion was remitted in 2017 from countries that adhere to Kafala. Statistics from Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) show remittances from Saudi Arabia have more than doubled in the last two years to Ksh 22.65 billion ($179 million). That amount was sent back home in the first eight months of this year, ranking the Gulf nation as the third-largest source of remittances for Kenya behind the United Kingdom and the United States. However, 2021 remittances marked the fastest growth, with a 144 percent climb since 2020.

Reports of Rape and Torture

As the country continues enjoying remittances from the Gulf, Haki Africa, a human-rights organization headquartered in Mombasa, estimates more than 200,000 Kenyans in Saudi Arabia are working in different companies and homes, and that most are working under inhumane conditions. The organization’s estimate is double that of the Kenyan’s government’s.

Haki Africa Executive Director Hussein Khalid said the Kenyan embassy in Saudi Arabia has been ignoring complaints, fueling the vice.

Khalid said most of the Kenyan women in Saudi Arabia have undergone sexual assault, physical abuse and mental torture. He said, this year alone, the organization has received 51 complaints from domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

“We would like to urge the government of Kenya to speed up the rescue process for our women who are suffering in Gulf countries and return them home,” Khalid said. “It is the responsibility of any government to ensure that all of its citizens are safe regardless where they are.”

Joy Simiyu, a former domestic worker from Bungoma in rural western Kenya, said her Gulf-based agent declined to speak with her when she needed help. Simiyu’s employer in Saudi Arabia only allowed her to sleep four hours and eat one meal per day. Plus, the terms of the contract weren’t being abided. “[After] reaching Riyadh, I was forced to work for the relatives of the employer.”

She said one day her employer attempted to kill her, but she was able to run away and report the matter to the nearest police station. Then she was then taken to an accommodation center, a location the Saudi government runs to keep migrants before they are deported or while they are looking for work after fleeing another employer.

Now based in Nairobi, the 24-year-old revealed the accommodation center was insecure, as she learned potential employers who visited the site would sexually assault women using the promise of a job. Food, water and electricity were unavailable, too, she said.

“I would like to urge my fellow Kenyans not to go to Saudi Arabia to look for jobs, things are not good there, you better suffer in your country than in other people’s country,” she said with tears rolling down her face. “What is in Saudi Arabia is slavery and not job opportunities.”

Recruitment Agencies: ‘Mother of All Problems’

In July 2021, when appearing before the Labor and Social Welfare Committee, then-Labor Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui reported 1,908 distress calls from the Gulf between 2019 and 2021.

While in the Gulf, Nyambura observed governments taking action when workers from different countries contacted them about mistreatment.

“Kenyans in the Gulf are like orphans,” Nyambura said. “They have no one to protect them.

However, the Kenyan government lately appears to be taking action. A few weeks ago, Cabinet Secretary for Foreign and Diaspora Affairs Dr. Alfred Mutua traveled to Riyadh to discuss the domestic-worker issue with Saudi officials. Mutua said the two agreed Kenyan domestic-worker agencies could set up offices in Saudi Arabia to deal with issues concerning their clients. The two countries announced they are collaborating to “flush out” illegal agencies and those that break the law.

“We have to break the cartels and streamline the agencies, some of which are owned by prominent Kenyans,” Mutua told the media. He added his ministry will release a set of new instructions and procedures prospective migrant workers will be required to adhere to and meet before they can be cleared to travel to the Gulf states. The foreign ministry reported hundreds of Kenyans have been repatriated. Mutua and his Saudi counterpart agreed to the formation of a hotline (+96 6500755060) that Kenyan workers can call to report abuse.

Meanwhile, in February, the Qatari government shut down 12 recruitment agencies. The operation came a few days after Central Organization of Trade Union (COTU) Secretary General Francis Atwoli and Qatar Labor Minister Ali Marri held talks in Doha. It is part of a campaign Atwoli is involved in that also has been putting pressure on the governments of Kenya and Saudi Arabia.

Atwoli told Toward Freedom recruitment agencies must be prohibited, calling them the “mother of all problems” facing workers.

“The issue of negotiations on the terms and conditions of workers should be government to government, and not [on] the recruitment agencies,” he told Toward Freedom.

Meanwhile, recruitment agencies oppose the ban of agencies. For instance, Maimuna Hassan of Nairobi-based Asali Commercial Agencies said many people do not talk about the benefits of working through recruitment agencies. Haki Africa Rapid Response Officer Mathias Sipeta urged those aspiring to travel to the Gulf through recruitment agencies to verify them before signing agreements.

Nyambura said Atwoli has been trying to fight for workers’ rights in the Gulf, but that he gets sidetracked by Kenyan politics. She also said he lacks support from the government.

Like Simiyu, Nyambura has concluded it is better to work in Kenya. She pointed to the country’s coffee and tea farms as better options. But seeing for the first time in Kenyan history both a government official and a labor leader holding meetings with Gulf state officials has indicated to some, like Nyambura, that the situation may improve.

“Maybe under the new administration,” the former domestic worker said, “things will change.”

Shadrack Omuka is a freelance journalist based in Kenya. He writes about human rights, climate change, business and education, among other topics. His work has appeared in several publications around the world, such as Equal Times, Financial Mail, New Internationalist, Earth Island and The Continent, among others.