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‘They see us as slaves’: Domestic helpers head for the Gulf despite their fears of sexual abuse

The Kenyan government has introduced reforms to make domestic work safer in a region notorious for labour trafficking. But will the changes work?

In a busy recruitment agency in Nairobi’s central business district, dozens of women line the halls. All hope that today they will secure a job as a domestic worker in the Gulf states, cooking, cleaning and caring for another family thousands of miles from their own homes.

Pamela Mbogo* is one of them. The 29-year-old has found a job in Saudi Arabia starting next month. It’s not her first time as a domestic worker. On the previous occasion she lived and worked for a family in Bahrain, where she was abused and locked inside the house for days at a time. Yet, this time, Mbogo believes it will be different.

“The first time I went, I went in an illegal, chaotic situation through brokers who did not prepare us for what lay ahead,” says Mbogo. “I am more confident this time. I believe all will be well.”

Her confidence comes from a raft of legal reforms that Kenya has recently put in place to try to make it safe for women to travel to the Gulf to work.

The region is the most dangerous place in the world to find work for migrant domestic workers such as Mbogo. The Gulf has long been notorious for labour trafficking, with the 2.5 million-strong domestic workforce particularly vulnerable to widespread physical and sexual abuse, and having their passports and salaries withheld by employers.

Underpinning this abuse is the kafala system, which prevents migrant workers from changing jobs without their employer’s consent. It can mean that women who face abuse at the hands of their employers are left trapped and facing arrest if they try to flee.

Reports of east African workers being raped and tortured across the region and haunting videos of Kenyan women pleading for help after allegedly being abused by their employers saw the Kenyan government follow other countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines in banning its citizens from travelling to work in the Gulf in 2014.

Since then the government has been grappling with how to allow women and the country’s economy to benefit from the huge demand for migrant domestic workers from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while keeping those who want to travel for work safe.

This year it introduced measures to mitigate the risk of abuse.

Before, Kenyan recruitment agencies had no legal obligation to bring women facing abuse home. Under the new rules, if a Kenyan woman is abused, agencies must help them leave, with the cost of their rescue coming out of a 1.5-million Kenyan shilling (R216 603) bond that the agent has to pay to operate.

The government has also negotiated an agreement with Saudi Arabia to enforce a minimum monthly wage of 40 000 Kenyan shillings (R5 776), as well as food and housing.

In recent months, newly registered recruitment agencies have been allowed to start sending domestic workers to the Middle East again.

At the Centre for Domestic Training and Development (CDTD) just outside Nairobi, students are cheerful and excited about their future as they make beds in mock bedrooms, cook chapati in practice kitchens, and study basic Arabic. Demand for the course is huge. About 350–400 women are already graduating each month.

Edith Murogo in her office outside Nairobi.
Edith Murogo in her office outside Nairobi. She worries that the new rules will have little effect in the Gulf states. (Joost Bastmeijer, The Guardian)

But Edith Murogo, director of the CDTD, worries that governments will not keep to their side of the bargain.

“That is my headache. I have prepared my girls very well. They are ready for the market,” says Murogo. “But is that market ready for them? Are they going to respect the rules? Are their governments ready to hold [abusers] accountable?”

Paul Adhoch, the executive director of Trace Kenya, a Mombasa-based counter-trafficking NGO, works relentlessly to protect Kenyan women who leave home to take up domestic worker posts in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. He says that he’s seen the ban have a positive impact, but the calls for help are still coming in.

“With the new rules it’s easier,” he says. “But in the last two weeks we have had three desperate calls from women [in the Gulf]. They have their passports and phones taken away, but they look for a Kenyan face when their employers send them to the mall and they approach them for help. They ask them to call us.”

He estimates that there are at least 120 000 Kenyans in the Middle East, roughly one-third of whom have been trafficked. He uses outreach work to get his phone number into the hands of Kenyan workers before they go.

He and his colleagues at Trace are worried that, despite repeated requests, the government has not made the content of the new bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE available to NGOs or to the public. Requests from The Guardian for copies of those agreements also received no response.

The Kenyan government’s new website with information on credible employment agencies, launched as part of the reforms, is still only available in English, despite the fact that many low-income Kenyans are more comfortable in Kiswahili.

Despite the Kenyan government’s claim that the Saudi government had agreed a minimum wage, workers still report to Adhoch that they are earning as little as 18 000 Kenyan shillings — if they get paid at all.

In Kenya 42% of the population live below the poverty line and many women are prepared to risk abuse to send their desperately needed salary home.

Adhoch warns that “rogue brokers” have already emerged to circumvent the new regulations. “They say: ‘You don’t want to wait for a training course, an official visa, a passport? Pay me, and I can get you to the Middle East right now’,” he says. “These rogue labour brokers traffick workers abroad with fake visas, false promises, and no way to get home.”

Only a broken leg allowed Shani Hassan* to escape to Kenya when she took a job in Saudi Arabia just before the ban was put in place. She was allowed to sleep for only two hours a night, and given little more than noodles to eat.

After more than a year of abuse, her employer’s son threw Hassan down the stairs, breaking her leg, leaving her unable to work. Finally, she was allowed to go home.

She says that she sees the cycle repeating itself. Her younger cousin took a job in Bahrain immediately after the ban was lifted. After only three weeks, Hassan says, her cousin escaped, open wounds still visible on her face from beatings.

Hassan doesn’t believe that any policy emanating from east Africa can change the deep-rooted racism and abuse of foreign domestic workers across the Middle East. “The government may be well meaning, but I do not think it can change the attitude those people have towards domestic workers from Africa or Kenya,” says Hassan. “They view us as slaves.”

* Names changed to protect identities

This is an edited version of a feature originally published as part of The Guardian’s Global Development project.