Domestic Workers protesting. Photo: Answers Africa.
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Saudi Arabia is a modern slave hub and graveyard for African migrant workers

Advisories and social media videos have warned Africans from travelling to the Gulf for work. But the human rights violations and abuses that workers have experienced in the past are being eclipsed by numerous cases of detainment, torture and deaths at the hands of ‘employers’.

The Global Slavery Index shows that an estimated 61,000 people are live in modern slavery in the Arab nation of Saudi Arabia i.e., 2 in every 1,000. The rate of vulnerability to slavery in the country is a staggering 46.3%. The kingdom’s “kafala,” or sponsorship system, is the most restrictive in the Gulf, according to labour and rights organisations. The common practice allows ‘employers’ to hire workers from places like Africa and South Asia, confiscate their passports, and control whether they leave the country or change jobs.

Unfortunately, these statistics are not new information. Reports by the U.S Department of State indicate that over the past five years, semi-skilled adults primarily from South and Southeast Asia and East Africa are coerced by traffickers disguised as labour brokers into migrating to Saudi Arabia for work in construction, agriculture, and domestic service. But once they arrive, they are forced into isolation and substandard working conditions that heighten their risk of forced labour. Women are particularly vulnerable to forced domestic service and after they are sequestered inside private residences, they face untold horrors under their ‘employers’.

Migrant workers are subject to forced labour, debt bondage, restriction of movement, passport confiscation, excessive overtime, lack of adequate healthcare, and being sold to other employers without signed contracts.

Employment is used as a loose term because non-payment or overdue wages remain the main complaints from foreign workers in the Kingdom; further exacerbated during the pandemic. The report details that in 2021, accounts of racial and religious discrimination against African migrants, specifically domestic workers, increased.

It notes that an increasing number of domestic workers who died in the Kingdom during the pandemic were Kenyans. In 2019, 883 cases of Kenyans in distress were reported, and in 2020 abuse and exploitation increased to 1,035 cases. But other East Africans are also experiencing sickening fallouts. In 2020, Ethiopian returnees especially Tigrayans who had endured appalling conditions in detention and subsequent deportation, went on to be racially profiled and sent to internment camps across Ethiopia, where abuse, forced labour, and forced disappearances have been documented.

File Picture: Migrant domestic workers, hold banners demanding basic labor rights as Lebanese workers, during a march at Beirut’s seaside, Lebanon, Sunday, April 28, 2013. Photo: Hussein Malla/AP

Human exploitation goes as far as military operations. In 2015, “as the leader of a multi-nation coalition that commenced military operations against Houthi rebel forces in Yemen, Saudi Arabia paid, materially supported, trained, and commanded Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF),” the report explains. The Sudanese combatants included many children between the ages of 14 to 17 years old.

Kenyans dying at alarming rates in Saudi Arabia

Because of the more detailed accounts about the extent of human rights violations and abuse, countries are getting a better picture of what’s happening to their citizens.

Kenyan politician Alfred Mutua who is currently being vetted for the Foreign Minister position, told the parliament that 85 Kenyan women working in Gulf Nations have died in the past three months.

“I’ve looked into the matter, and I’ve seen systematic failure in systems, from how they’re recruited here… and how they’re let to operate when they get to Saudi Arabia and other countries,” he told MPs.

The nominee promised that, if approved, he would work with the relevant authorities to investigate the deaths. “So that each and every person who participated in their deaths is brought to book and charged.”

In a bid to keep up the flow of workers, Citizen reports that the Saudi Arabian government has assured the Kenyan Ministry of Labour that it has recently formed a protection and support department under its Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development to handle all complaints from migrant workers, recruitment agencies, and embassies. It has also introduced a labour reform initiative that allows employees to change employers and an alternative dispute resolution mechanism, that will ensure cases referred to court will be resolved within 21 days.

Given the current statistics, that are likely underreported, this is probably lip service and an effort to stop the cessation of East African migrant workers, which would greatly hinder their labour force.

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