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Kenya makes baby steps in protecting its migrant workers


The crowds of young Kenyans outside recruitment agencies in Nairobi’s central business district (CBD) have continued to swell each passing month, fuelled by the hope of landing jobs as domestic workers — cooking and doing other house chores for families mainly in the Gulf States.

Indeed, many are lucky and fly out of the country to take up their dream jobs, taking a break from the high levels of unemployment among the youth in Kenya.

The Economic Survey 2020 showed that that 5,341,182 or 38.9 percent of the 13,777,600 young Kenyans are jobless, further widening the gap between the rich and the poor.

This backs World Bank data on Kenya, which indicates that the country had the highest rate of youth joblessness in East Africa in 2015 with 17 percent of all young people eligible for work lacked jobs.

This number has widened following the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, further pushing many youths to seek employment opportunities abroad, including the Gulf states.

But with the rising number of Kenyans leaving the country for domestic jobs in the Middle East, there has been a corresponding rise in distress calls by those alleging torture and mistreatment by their employers.

Distressed kin

Every week incidents of families and friends seeking help to repatriate their distressed kin from the Gulf region are rife. The region has a notorious record as one of the most hostile places for migrant domestic employees due to numerous cases of physical and sexual abuse.

Some of the tortured Kenyan domestic workers even post videos on social media sites hoping to get help from the government.

The torture and abuse have thrived for many years partly because of the infamous Kafala (sponsorship) system, which is used by Gulf states to monitor migrant labourers, working primarily in the construction and domestic sectors.

The kafala system prevents migrant workers from changing jobs without their employer’s consent. This often results in workers remaining trapped under abusive employers and even risk arrest if they attempt to flee.

Faced with the rising number of distress calls among the young migrant workers, Kenya is now set to roll out measures to tame rogue agencies illegally trafficking hundreds of youth to the Gulf states.

“I have directed the National Employment Authority (NEA) to crack down on those agencies recruiting people without going through us, we must know who are the employers across the border because we have seen in the past where Kenyans travel abroad to look for greener pastures but they end up being abused,” says Labour Cabinet secretary Simon Chelugui.

“Any agency that will be caught transporting Kenyans to any country without authorisation of National Employment Authority will be dealt with using all available government and legal machinery.”

Rising demand

More than 300 private companies were registered in 2020 to place Kenyans in jobs abroad amid the rising demand for migrant workers.

An estimated 20 percent of the 130,000 Kenyans working in the Gulf region were illegally trafficked out of the country, exposing them to the risk of brutality by their host employers.

In an attempt to end the menace, Kenya slapped a ban on the export of labour in September 2014 with a task force set up to review the management of foreign employment.

The ban on the export of all categories except domestic and low skilled cadres was later lifted in April 2016.

Part of the task force’s recommendation was that outbound Kenyan migrant workers be subjected to mandatory pre-departure training and verification of their contracts of employment before leaving the country.

The pre-departure training offered by an inter-ministerial vetting committee seeks to protect domestic and low skilled cadres from any mistreatment, abuse or job scam.

Mr Chelugui said Kenya has also concluded bilateral labour agreements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, United Arabs Emirates and Qatar in an attempt to safeguard its migrant workers.

Wage surveys

“Kenya has signed three bilateral labour agreements — Saudi Arabia with 75,000 Kenyans, mostly domestic workers, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates where we have approximately 50,000 Kenyans,” said the Cabinet secretary.

Mr Chelugui said Kenya is also conducting minimum wage surveys in several countries it has inked bilateral labour agreements with to curb discrimination of its citizens working abroad.

“Our labour attaches in Qatar, Saudi Arabia have been instructed to carry out minimum wage surveys across those countries so that if we have a European nurse or doctor working there, ours too have to be paid the same (salary) like them,” he disclosed.

The Saudi Arabia government on March 14, 2021, announced that it had formally abolished the kafala system as part of its labour law reforms — enabling foreign workers on its soil to switch jobs without their employers’ permission.

Under Saudi Arabia’s revised system, migrant workers are now allowed to switch jobs upon the expiry of their work contract.

The workers are also able to transfer jobs during the validity of their contract provided they notify their employers within an agreed timeframe.

According to the Saudi government, workers are also exempted from “exit authorisation”, allowing them to travel indefinitely without the permission of their employers.

The Insurance Regulatory Authority (IRA) last month announced that Kenya also aims to roll out an issuance cover for thousands of its citizens seeking employment overseas in regions such as the Middle East and Asia to improve their welfare.

IRA chief executive Godfrey Kiptum said the country wants to replicate models in countries such as Ethiopia where the cover was rolled out.

He said the cover would be part of efforts to expand coverage of insurance to the vulnerable Kenyans, many of who opt for overseas domestic jobs amid rising cases of human rights violation. “This is something we are working on in cooperation with other government bodies,” he said without giving details of the cover.

As part of boosting the welfare of its migrant workers, there are also proposals to provide them special incentives, including wealth protection to encourage them to invest back home if Parliament enacts a new Bill into law.

The Kenya Citizenship and Immigration (Amendment) Bill 2020, requires Foreign Affairs Cabinet secretary to craft a voluntary savings scheme for Kenyans living abroad.

If passed into law, the Bill, currently before the Senate, will open the window for Kenyans in the diaspora to form associations and voluntarily contribute to a saving scheme.