Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau stirred up a backlash recently with his remarks appearing to apportion blame on Kenyan migrant workers in the Gulf reported to be subjected to abuse and cruel treatment by their employers and recruiters.
Commenting on the repatriation of Diana Chepkemoi, a Kenyan migrant worker who had made a distress call about her mistreatment in Saudi Arabia, Mr Kamau tweeted: “We have told Kenyans repeatedly to stop sending this category of workers to Saudi. You’ve chosen not to listen.”
He also suggested that domestic jobs require obedient employees, a character that some Kenyan migrant workers lack — stirring mixed reactions online.
“How do you even obey when you’re being overworked?” one person asked.
“He has a point though. The cultural standards there are different from what we are used to,” another said.
Mr Kamau’s propensity for blunt remarks similarly put him in the spotlight in April 2020 when he seemed to echo official Chinese explanation that some Kenyan nationals captured on video stranded on a Guangzhou city street were among those who had violated Covid-19 control measures.
But the backlash also draws attention to the rising unemployment and poverty in Kenya that have prompted many young people to seek work elsewhere and their plight in those countries.
On the day early this month that Ms Chepkemoi was being received at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, another group of about 100 girls were departing to Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf countries, for instance, rely on millions of foreign workers such as housemaids, fitness instructors, metro-train employees, hotel cleaners and waiters, caregivers, nannies, drivers, and security guards, who send money to their families back home every year. Diaspora remittance from Saudi Arabia has more than doubled in the past two years.
More than 30 percent of the oil-rich kingdom’s population of 35 million are migrants, many from Asian and African countries. The domestic workers category is the most abused, exploited, and least protected. They work for long hours for wages far below the minimum rate and in some instances, suffer physical and sexual violence.
Mr Kamau said sending workers to Saudi Arabia is not a bad thing but “the challenge has always remained with house helps.”
“We have an economy that cannot absorb the number of young people that are brought into the job market every year. So it is good that they seek employment abroad,” he said.
The PS said a majority of workers from Kenya in the Middle East are doing well, adding that the Ministry of Labour should ensure that domestic workers are better trained and psychologically prepared for the subservience of work in domestic environments.
Mr Kamau said over 200,000 Kenyans enjoy gainful employment in Saudi Arabia.
“It is a huge boon for our economy and our diaspora remittances,” he said.
A career diplomat, Mr Kamau was recently appointed by UN secretary general Antonio Guterres along with nine other individuals for a term of two years as members of the 7th advisory group of the peacebuilding fund.
Reports indicate that from Saudi Arabia to Myanmar, jobless Kenyans are also falling prey to unscrupulous recruiters and employers who abuse them and violate their human dignity and freedoms, retain their wages and passports, and force them to work long hours.
Being a signatory of the International Labour Organisation, Kenya’s labour and foreign affairs ministry are expected to take “steps towards the orderly and safe movement of people, including increasing migratory opportunities and burden-sharing among countries.”
In the wake of Ms Chepkemoi’s repatriation, the Kenyan Embassy in Riyadh said in a statement, “The Embassy is grateful to the Ministry of Labour and the Consular Departments of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for their quick response and intervention in this case.”
On the plight of the migrant workers as more Kenya hunt for opportunities abroad, Mr Kamau referred Business Daily to the Ministry of Labour saying they are the best suited to answer any questions relating to sending domestic workers to the Middle East.
Last year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommended a temporary ban on the recruitment and export of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia after it emerged that close to 100 Kenyans had lost their lives in the Gulf country.
A report from the Ministry of Labour said a majority of the reported deaths were caused by cardiac arrest, Covid-19, cancer, childbirth, respiratory complication, tuberculosis and meningitis. There were also incidences of accidents and suicide.
The number of distress calls had also increased, causing an uproar.
When he appeared before a parliamentary committee in September last year, Mr Kamau told MPs that the situation in Saudi required immediate action, saying that embassy officials had abandoned their consular services to help families of Kenyans who have lost their loved ones.
The Labour ministry had facilitated 87,784 jobs in the Gulf region since 2019. But despite cases of abuse and cruel treatment of foreign domestic workers, statistics from the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) show Sh22.65 billion ($188.79 million) was sent back home by Kenyans living in Saudi Arabia in the first eight months of the year.
This ranks the Gulf nation as the third-largest source of remittances for Kenya behind the UK (25.4 billion) and the US (Sh188.8 billion).
President William Ruto pledged when during his inauguration on September 13, to create a ministry to address issues affecting Kenya’s diaspora.
“The focus has been on remittances, while their fundamental rights as citizens have been neglected. “To correct this oversight, I pledge to elevate diaspora issues at a ministry level,” he said.
Whether the Diaspora ministry will address the plight of Kenyan migrant workers, time will tell.