Friday, November 25, 2011
Tears as Kenyans suffer in slavery in Saudi Arabia
By Joe Kiarie
A fortnight ago, Asha Ali from Likoni, Mombasa, sent an SoS to her parents claiming something terrible was about to happen to her in Saudi Arabia.
The 22-year-old, who left for The Gulf in March, said she has been extremely starved, forced to work for up to six households, and that she was about to be sold out to a slave master in Dubai.
"Mama huyu baba jana aliniuliza nataka kununuliwa wala la, naogopa ataniuwa. Kama Mungu ameandika nitakufa Saudia sina cha kufanya. Mama bye," (Mum, yesterday my boss asked me if I want to be sold or not. I fear he might kill me.
Fatuma, who recently fell off a ladder while working, [PHOTOS: MAARUFU MOHAMMED]
If it is God’s plan that I die in Saudi Arabia, there is nothing I can do. Bye mum) read one of three messages sent to her mother, Mwanaisha Mohamed. Ms Asha has not communicated since, and her fate remains unknown. When contacted by The Standard On Sunday, Yusuf Ibrahim, the Mombasa branch manager of the agency that recruited Asha, could neither explain her whereabouts nor her condition.
This is a plain illustration of the untold misery thousands of Kenyan migrant workers are facing in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other parts of the Persian Gulf under circumstances that exemplify utter modern-day slavery.
It comes amid damning revelations of how deceitful recruitment agents have been helping promote this servitude.
With about 40, 000 Kenyan migrants working in Saudi Arabia, and over 400 of them deported in the last four months, the personal accounts of girls still in captivity abroad are disquieting. They paint a picture of a kingdom where upon entry; most workers have no choice but to surrender their travel documents along with their human rights and dignity to employers.
The most common violations include sexual assault; overwork with no pay, torture, lack of privacy and starvation. Chilling murders sum it all, with the recent discovery of a body of a Kenyan girl locked up in a freezer adding to statistics of unexplained murders of migrants in The Gulf. Fatuma Masoud, a mother of four from Kisauni, also sent an SoS to Mombasa last weekend. She recently fell off a ladder while cleaning her boss’s home at Al Khudar, Saudi Arabia and suffered a fracture to her back. But she continues to be overworked and cannot access any medical help.
"I am always locked in; eat smelly food or leftovers, one meal a day. I am a Kenyan, please help me get out of here, alert my embassy. You are my last hope," she wrote. When contacted, her employer, Hussein al Doussary, claimed to be unaware of the situation. Ms Fatuma is yet to receive any help. Most survivors make it back to Kenya with broken limbs. And although their accounts mirror scripts akin to gruesome movies, they are the reality.
Devious recruitment agents
"My boss’ family locked me in at all times and forced me to work while stark naked to ensure I neither escaped nor stole anything in the house," notes a lady who recently fled Saudi Arabia, but who seeks anonymity. As this unfolds, the Government has been busy echoing human rights activists in decrying the form of slavery and admitting its helplessness in seeking a solution, raising questions regarding whom these innocent Kenyans should turn to.
This maze of servitude starts with devious job recruitment agents, who have established complex international networks via which they rake in millions of shillings for shipping out unsuspecting workers. With average profits of between Sh300,000 and Sh400,000 per every person delivered, the agents have stood at nothing to entrap as many Kenyans as possible, whether voluntarily or by force.
To enhance efficiency, they subcontract the recruitment phase to local brokers across the country. Salma Bakari, a seasoned negotiator for various Saudi agents in Mombasa, terms the business irresistible. "I have been receiving Sh10,000 in cash for every employee delivered while others get up to Sh20,000. At some point, the girls were so many I could get 30 of them monthly," she reveals.
Ms Salma says they traverse villages countrywide to lure girls into taking up jobs abroad. "They just give us their national identity cards and those of their parents. The agents help process passports and visas. The girls are then taken to Nairobi for a medical examination before flying out, with the agents footing the bills," she notes. She divulges that a group of 20 girls departed for The Gulf last Wednesday night while another leaves on Monday.
Contrary to popular belief, majority of job-seekers who migrate to The Gulf are from middle-class income families, possess some tertiary training and do so voluntarily. Ironically, most of them play an active role, and even incur debts, trying to finance their migration.
Khalid Hussein, the Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri) executive director, says about 80 per cent of the migrant workers are Muslim girls aged between 22 and 35 years. The girls are usually promised lucrative jobs as saleswomen, housekeepers, hotel attendants, drivers, waiters, and chefs.
"Most of them are usually employed and doing similar jobs locally, earning an average of Sh10,000 per month. But they find promises of jobs that fetch up to Sh80,000 irresistible, sign contracts and depart, oblivious of what awaits them," Khalid explains.
He says reality dawns on the migrants once they reach Dammam in Riyadh and are packed into a warehouse that serves as a ‘slave’ market.
"At this point, you must surrender your passport. You can stay here for weeks and all you get is food. The locals usually visit this warehouse to choose the persons they like and force them to serve as cleaners, nannies, cooks or gardeners. Protests of being shortchanged are futile since one has already officially agreed to be owned," Mr Khalid states.
Salma confides that while some agents usually take the girls directly to new employers, others take the girls to the warehouse and auction them for up to a month.
Once enslaved, Khalid says majority of the women are susceptible to extreme human rights violation. But with no friends, relatives of law enforcers to help them, desperate efforts to force their own deportation always prove futile.
"In a day, we receive two to three cases of enslaved Kenyans who want to return back home due to exploitation. Currently, we have 17 cases of sick women detained in Dammam awaiting deportation," notes the director, whose organisation has now opened a hotline to specifically deal with the crisis in Saudi Arabia.
With slavery outlawed, it is believed the locals subtly use contracts to legitimise and camouflage this custom. For a migrant to work in Saudi Arabia or the UAE, she must first secure a visa via a sponsorship system called kafala. This is a routine practice among Gulf Cooperation Council states used to regulate residency and employment of foreign workers. Under it, expatriate workers can only enter, work, and leave member countries with the consent of their sponsor or a local employer. A worker’s salary, stay, meals, ability to work elsewhere, and even ability to return home are thus entirely at the mercy of employers.
Khalid notes that although both the sponsor and the employee can break the contract, this apparent equality is a mere veil considering that if the worker breaks her contract; she must pay the cost of her return ticket (a fee that the employer would have otherwise paid). She may also be fined or forced to pay debts to the recruitment agency, thus forcing her to continue working.
Once at their workplaces, and without official documents in foreign land, migrants fall under the charge of female employers. Most Middle Eastern households often consist of extended families and this translates to gruelling work that normally includes tasks like cleaning, washing, cooking, tailoring, and taking care of children and the aged.
Working hours range between 11 and 18 hours a day, with the maid obliged to work day and night.
As Asha reveals, she has alongside a Philippine colleague, been working day and night for several households daily. Saudi Arabia officially banned slave trade as recently as 1962, followed by the United Arab Emirates in 1963.
The victims’ plight
The following is a list of some Kenyan girls who have faced servitude in the Gulf.
After just three weeks of torture in Saudi Arabia, Wangui forced her deportation last Monday. She is nursing serious back injuries and has stitches following abuse by her employer.
Has complained of working under very harsh conditions and general mistreatment since flying to Saudi Arabia eight months ago. She has also never been paid and efforts by her family to bring her back home have failed.
Her family has lost touch with her ever since she left Kenya. Even the agent who helped her secure employment claims not to know of her contacts and whereabouts.
Bahati has not received a salary for the past one and a half years and neither has she been allowed to return home. She has reported being subjected to severe physical abuse.
Has been complaining that she is unwell and not receiving any medical treatment as well as a salary for the past six months.
Ceased communicating upon arrival in Saudi Arabia over a year ago. Efforts to have her agent intervene have been futile.
Has complained of being very sick and extremely overworked since October last year. Her pleas to be deported have failed.
Has been held incommunicado in Tabouk, Jeddah ince June this year.