Kenyan migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia continue to report shocking accounts of extreme exploitation and abuse at the hands of employers.
One of the most dangerous places to work
Saudi Arabia is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to work, reflected by its poor labor and human rights records. Working in private households behind closed doors, it is especially difficult for domestic workers to make their abuse visible and seek support.
25-year-old Joy Simiyu is one Kenyan domestic worker who decided to seek employment in Saudi Arabia. With unemployment on the rise in Kenya, Joy was hopeful that she would be able to financially support herself as a domestic worker in the Gulf.
Abuse and deaths
Instead, Joy endured abuse and exploitation, forcing her to return home after a few months. During her time in Saudi Arabia, Joy recounted how she was deprived of food and rest, and her wages were not paid.
Now, she warns others about the realities of working in Saudi Arabia and counts herself lucky to have made it back home. Between 2020 and 2021, at least 89 Kenyans – the majority domestic workers – died in Saudi Arabia with authorities attributing these deaths to “cardiac arrest”.
The Guardian reports:
Faced with these grim statistics, the foreign affairs ministry proposed a ban on the deployment of Kenyan domestic workers to Saudi Arabia until protection measures were taken. But Kenya’s cabinet secretary for labour, Simon Chelugui, rejected those calls, saying that hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were employed there under “favourable conditions”.
“The response of the government has been poor at best,” said Hussein Khalid, executive director of Haki Africa. “It’s not what you would expect from a government when its citizens are in distress.”
Unethical recruitment agencies have a significant role to play in protecting workers from exploitation and must be held accountable for their part in facilitating exploitation.
In Joy’s case, she fled her abusive employers’ household and sought refuge with the agency that recruited her. Though the agency promised to secure a new place for Joy to work, she waited weeks. Disturbingly, Joy alleges that agency officials would lock her in a room with just one meal per day and pressure her for sex. Eventually she and a few others fled the hostel they were staying in and managed to reach the Kenyan embassy.
Reforms are meaningless without implementation
Bowing to pressure to protect migrant domestic workers from exploitation, Saudi Arabia passed some reforms to the kafala sponsorship system that ties workers’ immigration status to their employer, and introduced a wage protection system.
However, as reports of domestic servitude and abuse continue to stream out of the Gulf it is evident that implementation of these reforms is severely lacking.
Join the campaign calling on all states to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention to better protect migrant domestic workers from exploitation.