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Kenyan Domestic Workers in the Gulf in Peril

Umm Muhammed Umar

All Africa reports that there had been 1 025 distress calls made, in 2021, from helpless Kenyan women in Saudi Arabia, due to mistreatment, and even torture, by their employers. This was a huge jump from 88 in 2019/2020.

The search by African women, for a better life, have landed many in the hands of abusive employers. all Africa reports that there is an annual demand by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain, for unskilled and semi-skilled work.

Life as a shagala (domestic helper or servant), can become a nightmare if the woman’s passport and mobile phone has been confiscated by her employer. The shagala becomes isolated from the rest of the world, and it is extremely difficult to leave. Some are made to work from 5 am to midnight every single day.

According to All Africa, the Global Slavery Index indicates that Saudi Arabia has a modern slavery prevalence rank index of 138 out of 167 countries. The index also estimates that 61 000 people live in modern slavery.

The number of Kenyans working in Saudi Arabia has risen from 55 000 in 2019 to 97 000. All Africa reports that the number of deaths and ‘distress incidences’ has also increased. While three deaths had been reported to the Kenya embassy in Riyadh in 2019, 48 deaths were reported in 2020. Last September saw 41 deaths already having been reported for 2021. Also in 2021, three deaths were reported in Qatar, one in the United Arab Emirates, two in Kuwait, nine in Oman and two in Bahrain.

Unregistered recruitment agencies have been blamed for the dire situation. Suzanne Karanja, a recruitment agent in Kenya, said, “There are at least a hundred backstreet agencies linking workers to the Middle East. Only 29 agencies are government approved and licensed. Many agencies are very greedy and are least concerned with the safety and security of their recruits.” She added, “Most agents do not intervene when trouble comes. Their work is done once they receive the commission.” Karanja has also pointed at employers incurring the entire cost of processing travel documents, training, and travel, as being a factor leading to abusive scenarios.

Women from Africa, nevertheless, continue to head to the Gulf for employment, out of sheer desperation, in the face of abject poverty.


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