Saudi Arabia eases ‘slave-like’ restrictions on domestic workers

Stories of Kenyans being subjected to inhuman treatment in Saudi Arabia could soon be erased after the country imposed strict restrictions on migrant workers.

The relaxation of labor restrictions, announced on Wednesday by Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Minister Abdullah bin Nasser Abuthunain, is part of the reforms led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The reforms, which are expected to take effect from next March, are intended to promote the competitiveness of the Gulf Kingdom as a labor destination.

The Islamic State has more than 10 million foreign workers, mostly from poor African and Asian countries.

Saudi Arabia operates under the oppressive ‘kafala’ system, which prohibits migrant workers from changing jobs or leaving the country without the employer’s permission.

Bail system

Kafala is Arabic for ‘sponsorship system’, an employee-employer engagement model that monitors and regulates migrant domestic and construction workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s countries.

The system dates from the 1950s and is widely surrounded in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Migrant informal workers in one of these countries must have a host or sponsor. Job seekers are usually linked to potential employers by employment agencies.

Upon arrival, the employer’s welfare, visa and legal status are taken care of, which in most cases is the only point of contact for the worker. Most employers prevent their workers from returning home by taking in their visas and passports.

Human rights groups and labor organizations have condemned the system for exploiting workers without consequences for the employer. A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) compared the system to modern-day slavery.

Because the difficult conditions can not bear, hundreds of workers flee their employers and leave their documents behind. Many are eventually arrested and locked up in ‘labore’ (the labor office) because they were ‘illegally’ in the host country.

Unless agreement is reached with your employer, the workers sometimes languish in the labor office for months.

Detained for weeks

In June, Winfrey Nyawira and Teresia Wanjiku were detained for weeks in a hotel in Riyadh after disputes with their employers.

And for a few months, Naomi Owuor, another domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, is missing. Ms Owuor traveled to the Arab country at the end of last year to work as a childminder. In July, she disappeared without a trace.

Her colleagues Winfrey Nyawira and Olga Cheruto told the Nation that Ms Owuor had clashed with her employer. Days later, her phone was turned off and has been offline ever since. Her employer was also still unreachable.

Efforts by the Kenyan government to rescue workers trapped in the Gulf states have always been hampered by the kafala system protecting employers.

According to the HRW, the high adoption fees that employers pay to recruiters give them almost exclusive power over the worker.

A survey by the Nation of this year found that some agencies earn as much as 20,000 Saudi Riyals (about Sh570,000) for every Kenyan worker linked to an employer in the Gulf states. This fee is sometimes paid long before the worker gets on the plane.

The HRW argues that employers subject workers to slave-like conditions characterized by many working hours for poor and often delayed pay.

Some are even whipped by their employers to inculcate ‘discipline’ in them.

Clear physical address

The integrity of some recruitment agencies in Kenya has been carefully investigated. Although the National Labor Authority (NEA) requires them to have a clear physical address, some of the winding or shady work in the city.

The nation’s efforts to reach out to Nile Treasure Gate Ltd, Cheruto Agency and Pgidee Agency Ltd for months have yielded no results.

The promise of a well-paid job for Teresia Wanjiku, a mother of three children from Kajiado County, turned into a nightmare when she ended up in the hands of an abusive employer.

Me. Wanjiku will be denied food she has prepared, except that she has been overworked and even physically assaulted.

“Madam will hit me if we do not agree. When I reported her to my agent, he took back my passport,” she said. Wanjiku told the Nation in September.

In most cases, kafala takes precedence over employment contracts, which make the worker vulnerable in the event of a dispute.

When she becomes ill and unable to work, she flees and reports to her employer and her agency at the labor office.

The agent threatened her and her payment was withheld, further complicating her plans to flee the country.

“My agent told me I had to go back to my employer to get my money,” she said.

When she realized that no help would come from the Kenyan embassy in Riyadh, Ms. Wanjiku returned to her employer’s home, a decision she would later regret.


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