Based on numerous reports of abuse and violence, the Kenyan government has ordered its citizens not to seek domestic work in the Middle East.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wishes to inform that the government has temporarily suspended recruitment and export of domestic workers (housekeepers/maids) to Middle East countries with immediate effect, said Patrick Wamoto, political and diplomatic secretary in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, in a statement on Friday.
The government has noted with concern the increasing number of Kenyan citizens who have sought employment in the Middle East as domestic workers ... and ended up in distress.
Saudi Arabia is the focus of this announcement, since the oil-rich kingdom employs a relatively high number of Kenyans -- about 3,000 currently, according to the International Organization of Migration. They are often lured by promises of lucrative jobs, and many make plans to send remittances back to their families in Africa. But all too often, Kenyan women end up the victims of sexual harassment, violence, rape and even murder.
Similar situations have been reported in Lebanon, Qatar, Bahrain and other Middle Eastern countries where employment laws are based on an ancient Bedouin principle called kafala. This is essentially a code of hospitality; it once meant that families should host traveling strangers and treat them as one of their own.
Today, kafala has evolved into an official migrant worker policy known as sponsorship, which gives employers undue control over their employees. Common practices include withholding of paychecks, confiscation of passports, and the enforcement of long working hours under poor or unsafe conditions.
Migrant workers are often exempt from protective labor laws, giving them little redress in the face of injustice. Sponsorship is especially dangerous for female domestic workers, since they often travel alone and can be easily confined to their employers' homes.
Wamoto said the Kenyan government will focus on vetting the recruiting agencies that often act as the middleman for workers and employers. He accused them of underhanded dealings that lure women to foreign countries under false pretenses.
Once new policies -- including more thorough oversight of these recruiters -- are in place, Kenya will once again allow its workers to seek Middle Eastern employment.
The Foreign Ministry's decision is notable because it evinces a willingness to put human rights ahead of economic growth.
Kenya's economy right now strikes a precarious balance, according to the World Bank. The deficit has reached record highs following global recession, and over-regulated imports hamper progress. On the other hand, the situation seems to be stabilizing, and GDP growth is estimated to hit approximately five percent in each of 2012 and 2013.
In that context, even small policy decisions can have a big impact on Kenya's future. So the Foreign Ministry's decision to put human rights concerns ahead of economic gains is significant, and encouraging.
Kenya has a lot to lose, since the remittances that migrant workers send back have a substantial impact on the economy there. Total remittance inflows (from all countries with Kenyan immigrant workers) have been on the upswing in recent years --- such infows jumped from about $641 million in 2010 to more than $891 million in 2011, according to the Central Bank of Kenya. This amounts to a 40 percent increase in a single year. And 2012 statistics so far seem to suggest another large leap in remittances.
Stopping Kenyan domestic workers from traveling to the Middle East will surely put a dent in that income. But for the families of women who might have ultimately faced abuse at the hands of their employers abroad, it's a small price to pay.
Kenya’s decision follows a somewhat similar step that Indonesia, another important source of domestic workers in the Middle East, took last year.
After Indonesian migrant worker Ruyati binti Satubi was beheaded in Saudi Arabia last summer for killing her employer’s wife, the Jakarta government imposed a moratorium on sending its laborers to the kingdom. Indonesian authorities were incensed that the Saudi government had not notified them of the execution beforehand in order to provide sufficient time to apply for clemency.
At the time, Nisha Varia, a researcher at Human Rights Watch told CNN: It is important that Indonesia is sending a strong message to Saudi Arabia: That it is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia to execute one of its nationals without informing them.
Another Indonesian woman who was sentenced to death last November, Neneng Sunengsih binti Mamih Ujang, was eventually released after Indonesian officials intervened on her behalf.
Saudi Arabia currently has about 1.5 million Indonesian workers; only Malaysia has more. About two dozen Indonesians are presently on death row in the kingdom.
The Indonesian government is reportedly seeking to completely end the process of sending workers to Saudi Arabia by 2017.