The government is pursuing bilateral agreements with recruiting companies as it cracks down on rogue agencies that get Kenyan workers who end up exploited and abused in Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Labour Cabinet secretary Ukur Yatani said Kenya is also instituting a Labour Migration Policy and a Labour Migration Management Bill in response to the alarming number of mistreatment cases.
“Some Kenyans seeking employment abroad and those already working there sometimes face challenges,” said Mr Yatani during the national Labour Day celebrations held in Nairobi.
“To address this, the government has put in place measures from signing of bilateral labour agreements with key labour destination countries, vetting of all local private employment recruitment agencies by an interministerial committee in addition to posting of labour attaches.”
He noted that labour migration contributes significantly to the development of the local economy.
“The over four million Kenyans in diaspora provide immense human and capital resources in the form of remittances, knowledge, skills, and technology transfers.
“Last year alone, the inward formal annual remittance stood at Sh270 billion,” Mr Yatani told the gathering.
Conservative figures put the number of Kenyans currently working in Gulf countries at 100,000, but the true figure could be much higher.
Most Kenyan migrants in these countries are employed as domestic workers and are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, violence, rape and even murder.
Domestic workers, who are obliged to live in their employer’s homes, are particularly vulnerable, while the almost total lack of labour laws for migrants provides little scope for redress.
Many of them who have returned home from Qatar and other Middle East nations have come back with harrowing tales of mistreatment, torture and abuse by their employers, with many blaming the exit visa system for their predicaments.
Employment contracts involving migrant workers in the Middle East are based on the ancient Bedouin principle of kafala, which many liken to modern-day slavery.
What was once essentially a code of hospitality – that encouraged families to host travelling strangers and treat them as one of their own – has evolved into the sponsorship of migrant workers, which gives employers enormous control over their employees. Common practices include the withholding of wages, confiscation of passports and long working hours in substandard or inhuman conditions.
Kenya has over the years called for abolition of the exit visa system as it had long been abused by employers who would confiscate passports of workers.
Migrants got a relief recently after Qatar abolished its controversial exit visa system, which requires foreigners to obtain their bosses’ permission to exit the country.
Kenya welcomed the move and asked other middle eastern states to follow suit.