'They call us slaves': Kenyan domestic workers call out exploitation

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Domestic Slavery

Two years ago, Faith Murunga departed Nairobi on Christmas day for what she hoped would be a good paying job as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.

Yet upon arrival in the Saudi city of Arar, she quickly found her new employer to be cruel, denying her food and only allowing her to sleep four hours a night. At one point she contemplated suicide.

“I was once beaten thrice in a day, and my hand scalded despite being sick. My only mistake was taking a nap after working for 19 hours,” said Faith.

After more than a year of abuse, her friends and good samaritans managed to raise enough money for her to fly home to Kenya. Still, many Kenyans remain stranded in the Middle East, abused by their employers, abandoned by their recruitment agencies, and ignored by their embassies.

The Washington Informer explains:

Driven by lack of employment at home, and high demand for migrant labor in the Gulf, thousands of Kenyans leave each year searching for better opportunities in the Middle East.

Selestine Musavakwa, a 28-year-old mother of two, arrived in the desert kingdom the same day as Faith to work as a domestic worker.

But, unlike Faith, initially, her employer, an elderly couple whom she didn’t want to disclose their names, were courteous and understanding—at least for the first two months.

As days progressed into months, her employer confiscated her passport, delayed her wages, and eventually forced her to work for free.

“The children and the woman of the house were good to me, but the husband was violent,” she said.

“I gave in to his sexual advances. My agency—Alsaiar Travel, Tours and Recruitment Limited—did not help me. I told them to take me to another house, but they refused.

Kenya’s Labor and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Simon Kiprono Chelugui says there are approximately 97,000 Kenyans working in the Middle East, noting that “we assure these ladies of their safety and comfort in Saudi Arabia.”

While Kenya introduced new regulations for recruitment agencies in 2019, Paul Adhoch from counter-trafficking organization Trace Kenya says that the return of bogus recruitment agencies is to blame for an increase in trafficking.

“They do not conduct proper training for these workers on what to expect in the Gulf,” says Adhoch. “Some of these agencies take shortcuts, such as giving them fake visas, meaning they’ll have problems getting back home.”

For Faith, government policies can only go so far — “deep-rooted racism” continues to fuel abuse of migrant domestic workers across the Middle East.

“The policies and measures the Kenyan and Saudi governments are discussing are just high-sounding policies. They are not helping the domestic workers on the ground. They tell us they bought us and can do anything they wish us. They call us slaves.”

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