BY THUITA MWANGI
Recent highly publicised media reports on Kenyan migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, have painted an extremely grim picture of living and working conditions in that country.
The authors of these reports have cunningly sought to grossly sensationalise some incidences of maltreatment of domestic workers as representing 21st Century Slavery in Saudi Arabia. This is simply not true.
I would like at the outset to point out that Kenya values the excellent bilateral relations it enjoys with Saudi Arabia. These bonds of friendship, which are characterised by several centuries of cultural and trade contacts between the Arabian Peninsular and the East African Coast are today exemplified by the large number of Kenyans living and working in Saudi Arabia, as well as the many religious pilgrims who visit that country each year.
Thousands of Kenyans continue to earn decent livelihoods as drivers, technicians, salesmen, security guards, engineers, accountants, bankers and domestic workers. In total, over 100,000 skilled and semi-skilled Kenyans are today working in the Gulf Co-operation Council States (GCC). Within the last three months alone, the Saudi Embassy has processed over 8,000 work permits for Kenyans, a huge escalation, compared to the previous average of 17,000 permits per annum.
It is an undeniable fact that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has, in a span of two years facilitated the repatriation of a significant number of Kenya domestic workers in distress. This number has tended to increase as the demand for migrant labour, especially domestic house-helps has grown. Regrettably, the lucrative business of recruiting these workers has fallen into unscrupulous hands.
I would however wish to caution that as the media goes about reporting claims of torture and other forms of maltreatment of Kenyans by their employers in Saudi Arabia, it is important to do so with a fair sense of balance and proportion to guard against tarnishing the reputation of the Saudi people as a whole. Some of the reports are spurious as they have been deliberately peppered with falsehoods. An example of such a story, which was later recanted, is that of a domestic worker being forced to feed on snakes, aired by one of the television channels. It is for this reason that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, considers it duty bound to dispel the outrageous suggestion that there exists modern day slavery which is practiced on Kenyan workers.
Likewise, it has been implied in some of the reports that there has been complicity on the part of the Saudi Government. That is also not true. The Saudi Embassy in Nairobi has been co-operative and shown a lot of goodwill in working with the Ministry to address problems faced by Kenyan workers. There is in fact ongoing dialogue between the governments of Kenya and Saudi Arabia to conclude a Bilateral Labour Agreement that will increase protection of workers and also address the plight of migrants in distress. Similarly, in order to protect Kenyans from illegal or clandestine Recruitment Agents, the government has put the following long-term mechanisms in place:
• Private Employment Agencies and Agents are now required to submit their recruitment returns to the Ministry of Labour for vetting, accreditation and monitoring including employment of domestic workers’ contracts.
• Private Foreign Employment Recruitment Agents must submit their labour market information to local private employment agents.
• Kenyans seeking employment abroad are required to verify the authenticity of any employment contracts with the Ministry of Labour.
• The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will also upon request verify individual job offers with relevant authorities of the intended country of employment.
It is important to note that support from the Government of Saudi Arabia has impacted very positively on Kenya’s development efforts especially in the areas of health, road infrastructure and water supply. Therefore as we report these stories we must do so with a high sense of responsibility and fairness in order not to bring harm or undermine the quest of many hardworking and law abiding Kenyans striving to earn a living in Saudi Arabia.
(Thuita Mwangi, CBS, is the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)