Why would they go? The case of African domestic workers in the Gulf

One of my daily routines as I work from home is to stream my favourite Kenyan Radio Station – ‘Radio Jambo’. It’s my favourite radio station because it has everything – the reggae music that I love , news in Kiswahili, politics and current events, experts discussing different topics everyday, people calling in for advice, people confessing their scandals and the late night ones (afternoon here) where men call to compete for a woman who is looking for love. It’s a roller coaster of a radio station but it makes my time working from home quite enjoyable. As an avid fan, I’m aware of most of the commercials that are always on replay between songs and programs. A few weeks ago, I heard a new unsettling radio commercial that kept being aired frequently. It’s in Kiswahili and it’s advertising open positions for domestic workers to go to Saudi Arabia. It’s quite unsettling because many of the stories we hear coming from foreign workers in the Middle East are quite tragic.

Women are mistreated, sexually assaulted, raped, physically abused, forcefully confined, tortured and even murdered by their employers. Salaries are withheld, and their documents are confiscated by their employers so they cannot travel back home once they realize the inhumane working conditions. For those who are able to leave, they face huge fines from employment agencies if they breach their contracts. The systems of employment have been described as modern day slavery fuelled by intense afrophobia and racism.

Last year in January, I was at the JKIA airport in Nairobi returning to Canada from my holiday in Kenya. My fiancé and I saw a large group of women wearing the similar outfits that looked like uniforms including white head scarves. Many of them had so much anxiety on their faces and looked very uneasy. I was trying to figure out what was happening because it seemed very bizarre to see a large group of similarly dressed women at the airport (other than sports teams or nuns). We then realized they were all recruited domestic workers, being flown to the Middle East for work. My stomach got so uneasy just recollecting the documentaries and news stories I saw regarding the fate of domestic workers in those countries.

In that moment, I was wondering “why would they go?” With all the stories of mistreatment and warnings coming from people who managed to flee or people who are currently there, why would anyone go? If you do a search on youtube on domestic workers in the Gulf, you will find plenty of heartbreaking stories. As I watched the group of women, I wanted to tell them to run but what would they be running back home to? High unemployment rates, poverty and desperate families were their driving force (and that was just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit). Right now, the situation is far much worse for many people with significantly higher unemployment rates and rising inflation.

In 2015, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda banned domestic workers going to the Gulf and the Kenyan government revoked 930 licences of recruitment agencies. In 2017, the ban was lifted and recruitment commenced though corrupt systems that ensured a supply of people being trafficked to work in the Middle East. According to the Kenya’s Foreign Ministry, 89 Kenyans, most of them domestic workers have died in Saudi Arabia in the past two years. The Saudi government maintains that most deaths were due to cardiac arrest but officials in Kenya have deemed them suspicious. In September 2021, the Kenyan government put a temporary ban on the recruitment and exportation of Kenyan domestic workers to Saudi Arabia until adequate protective measures are put in place. Well, that was very short lived if agencies were already publicly recruiting for more workers over the radio just a month after the ban was enacted. Meanwhile in Burundi, their government just signed a major agreement in October with the government of Saudi Arabia to recruit workers and domestic workers.

Saudi Arabia operates on a kafala (sponsorship) system for migrant workers whereby a worker’s legal status is tied to individual sponsors which leaves room for abuse, exploitation and forced labour. Domestic workers were excluded from recent labour reforms to the kafala system – with one of the most abusive elements being that they require an exit permit from their employer in order to leave the country.

The reality is, due to widespread poverty in many African and Asian countries, predatory agencies will continue to have people to recruit and send over to the Gulf. Women facing multiple oppressive systems back home will feed the system. Up to now in 2021, labour laws in the Gulf do not equally protect migrant workers and Human Rights organizations continue to heavily criticize and call for reforms. With our corrupt governments desperately failing at protecting our own people and advocating for their rights, we have a moral obligation to continually amplify awareness on this exploitive system.

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One thought on “Why would they go? The case of African domestic workers in the Gulf

  1. The dynamics of the whole situation is tragic on both sides. The situation at home leading these women to opt for such opportunities vis a vis the situation they find themselves in when they get there. It’s even sadder when you look further and realize that their home countries do very little, if anything at all to ensure their safety. The kafala system for example. Why would a government agree to a system where their citizens are at the mercy of an employer who they haven’t even vetted. It’s basically slavery 2.0 where africans participated in the enslavement of their fellow africans, kidnapping and selling off their own brothers. But then again, I guess it’s just life as usual. History repeats itself they say.


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