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Economy

MPs plan safe haven for Kenyan workers in Saudi

Women protest in Nairobi in July to demand the state lifts the hiring ban of Kenyans to the Middle East. PHOTO | FILE
Women protest in Nairobi in July to demand the state lifts the hiring ban of Kenyans to the Middle East. PHOTO | FILE 

Parliament wants the Treasury to set up a fund whose proceeds will be used to rescue Kenyan migrant workers stranded in the Middle East.

The money should be used to establish a safe haven with the mandate of rescuing and securing migrant workers who are suffering ill-treatment by their Middle East employers, the MPs said in a report tabled in Parliament last week.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the National Treasury should provide a special fund to the missions in the Middle East, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to enable them deal with the numerous migrant labour challenges, including setting up a safe house,” the National Assembly committee on Labour and Social Welfare says.

The MPs also want the government to fast-track the signing of draft labour agreements with the Middle Eastern nations to ensure the security of thousands of Kenyans working abroad.

The committee, however, declined to adopt Foreign Affairs secretary Amina Mohamed’s recommendations imposing a total ban on the export of domestic workers she argues are subjected to deplorable working conditions, human rights violations, exploitation and abuse at the workplace.

Instead, the committee chaired by Matungu MP David Were dispatched a team to Saudi Arabia to study the administration of foreign employment and management of labour migration in the wake of numerous reports of abuse of Kenyan skilled and unskilled workers.

The team found that despite the government banning recruitment of Kenyan workers in the Middle East, it had failed to communicate the decision to its embassy in Saudi Arabia Kenya in September 2014 banned the recruitment of its citizens to the Middle East, citing numerous claims of mistreatment and suspended the operations of all recruitment agencies in the country.

Then Labour secretary Kazungu Kambi said most of the 930 recruitment companies had continued to mislead job seekers.

“Many illegal Kenyan migrants are still traveling to Saudi Arabia. There are no labour officers in the embassy to look into their welfare in the Kingdom,” the committee says in its fact finding mission report that was tabled in Parliament last week.

Kenyan ambassador to Riyadh, Mohammed Abdi Mohamud, told the delegation that Saudi Arabia had a large number of Kenyan diaspora, including migrant workers estimated at between 100,000 and 130,000.

In Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, immigrant labour is managed through a sponsorship (Kafala) system that requires the immigrants to hold a confirmed job before entering the country.

Kafala requires the immigrant to work for their sponsor for the duration of their stay. Sponsorship and a job are requirements for the issue of a residence permit known in the Middle East as Igama.

“Kenyans are highly regarded owing to their skills and hard work. However, the main sectors that employ significant Kenyan workers include skilled, semi-skilled and non-skilled categories,” the envoy said, adding that the country needs to exploit the labour opportunity in Saudi Arabia to deal with high levels of unemployment locally.

Mr Mohamud said non-skilled labour (house-helps, farm and construction workers), who form the bulk of Kenyan migrants, face serious challenges including run-aways who violate the residency status, illicit activities such as alcoholism, pimping, drug trafficking, human trafficking, theft, forgery and prostitution that tarnish the country’s reputation.

“Employers keep workers’ passports until they are about to exit or seek re-entry visas. This is an illegal measure that employers use to prevent workers from travelling or escaping,” he said.

Besides, Kenyan workers are forced to do different jobs from what is stated in their contracts, and are often asked to pay monthly or annual fees to employers without any justification.

“There is also non-payment or delay in payment of salaries. There is non-disclosure of work contracts for migrants to know their rights and duties. Some employers (Kefeels) go round the system by releasing workers to work for other employers,” Mr Mohamud told the MPs.

He said that lack of a labour agreement between Kenya and Saudi Arabia has seen migrants subjected to sharia laws of the Kingdom even as he defended the country saying it had put in place mechanisms to protect migrant domestic workers through legislation.

The MPs learnt that the Kenyan mission in Riyadh is overwhelmed by labour and migration cases.

“Saudi Arabia is quite expansive and Kenyans are spread over distant regions. The embassy is handicapped without a functional vehicle at the time of the visit,” the report says, adding that the mission has over the years been grossly underfunded.

The committee wants Kenya to set up a consular general office in Jeddah to cater for Kenyans living in Saudi Arabia’s second biggest city.

The report also asks Saudi authorities to address the haphazard recruitment of workers by unscrupulous agents who abandon them once they are paid their commissions.

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