Rising cases of modern slavery of Kenyans abroad
September 6 2022 was a joyous day for Diana Chepkemoi who returned to Kenya after being stranded in Saudi Arabia.
Diana left Kenya in July 2021 for Saudi Arabia. Her goal was to earn a better fortune that would later allow her to complete her degree course in Kenya. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
Diana was received with tears and celebratory songs on the day of her arrival in Kenya.
Nation Africa reports that Diana left Kenya after receiving the promise of getting an untaxed salary for a two-year contract to work as a house manager for one of the royal families in Saudi Arabia — a job she procured through Ghaziaan Recruitment Agency.
This was a wonderful opportunity since she deferred her university studies and was unable to get a job in Kenya, yet she needed to provide finances for her ailing mother and siblings’ school fees.
Soon after arriving in Saudi Arabia, Diana recalls “the wrath of her boss” who threatened to harm her, in contrast to the honest pay and safe work environment she was promised.
Her family was unable to reach her since her phone was off, thus, they were not aware of her situation until they saw tweets circulating about her rescue with pictures of her current physical state.
There are no direct details on the ordeal Diana went through. However, her statement to Standard Media confirmed the fears of the Kenyan public: «My friends are suffering. I am just lucky that my plight was highlighted. I am pleading with the government to do something…People are mentally and psychologically tortured it is a shame they often tell us there is nothing we can do… ».
The embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Kenya issued a statement claiming that Diana suffered from a normal health condition and was not subjected to any kind of ill-treatment. This statement implied that Diana did not suffer any abuse from her employer, but rather fell ill.
Nevertheless, Diana’s story is only a needle in a large haystack of abused migrant workers within countries of the Gulf cooperation council (Gcc). A 2022 study by The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery indicated that 98.24% of Kenyan migrant workers are victims of forced labour. The organization describes these high rates of exploitation as “truly rare if not unprecedented”.
Many are quick to judge the victims and question why they even left their home country in the first place. It is easy to victim-blame when you are not aware of the full story, and that is the danger of a single narrative.
The Kenyan economy heavily deteriorated at the beginning of the 2000s, which triggered the labour export boom as a survival strategy. As such, there has been a rise in unregulated employment agencies recruiting Kenyans to work in the Middle East. These Kenyans are in desperate search of an opportunity to help themselves and their families financially, which makes them easy targets for traffickers.
In addition, why is it referred to as “modern slavery” when these individuals voluntarily apply for these work opportunities? Modern slavery takes place in many forms, especially with the dynamic evolution of our society today.
Modern slavery in the present age refers to the exploitation of an individual or others for personal or commercial gain.
The victims are often tricked, coerced or forced, causing the loss of their freedom. This encompasses human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, child slavery, forced/early marriage and domestic servitude.
Consider the case of Joy Simiyu, whose story was reported by the Guardian in September 2022.
Joy also left in desperate search of a job amidst Kenya’s high unemployment rates. She went to Saudi Arabia to work as a housekeeper.
To her dismay, she was forced to work in multiple homes, deprived of food or rest and had her wages withheld.
Events took a turn when she escaped and went back to the recruitment agency seeking a transfer.
Instead, the agency officials locked her in a hostel with only one meal a day and would hound her and others in her same condition for sexual favours in exchange for a new assignment.
Modern slavery is hidden in plain sight and any one of us can fall victim out of circumstantial necessity or trickery.
What is the Kenyan government doing about it? We are yet to receive straightforward answers and see tangible results. Kamau Macharia, the Permanent secretary of Foreign Affairs, tweeted that Kenyans have been repeatedly told to stop sending this category of workers to Saudi Arabia and they have chosen not to listen.
His statement equally received backlash from Kenyans who state they deserve answers and action taken against human rights abuses irrespective of what category of work they do.
It seems the new Kenyan government has difficult tasks ahead seeing that Kenyans are not willing to let go of the plight of their fellow citizens.
The best initiating action would be to deal with the unregulated employment agencies that target fellow citizens with the aim of profit-making. There must be dire consequences for their actions to curb their acts. Moreover, the government must focus on job creation for low-skilled workers, especially those who have not undergone higher education. For these are the roots of the problem surrounding modern slavery of Kenyans abroad.
These Kenyans actively send money back to their families. Why criticize desperate Kenyans for seeking better opportunities, when there are no active measures to follow up with consulates and embassies on the reported cases of modern slavery?