When Neema Khamis, 31, was offered a job in Saudi Arabia in 2014 as a domestic worker, she thought it was a dream come true.
She had been unable to get work, yet she had two children and a mother to feed.
In Kenya, the average domestic worker makes less than Sh150 a day, so when a placement agency promised Khamis that she would make Sh23,000 a month in Saudi Arabia as a domestic help, she quickly said yes to the offer.
But Khamis quickly realised that moving to Saudi Arabia was a terrible mistake.
Isolated in a private home in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, Khamis was regularly beaten by her employer’s son, a university student.
She was only allowed to sleep for two hours a night and given little more than noodles to eat.
Her new employer also refused to pay the salary she had been promised, arguing that her unpaid labour was repayment for the fee they paid to bring her to the country.
“My passport and visa had been paid for by the agency, which was then compensated by the employer,” said Khamis.
“In other words, I was sold; my employer bought me. That is why they despised me, and would not tire of reminding me that they bought me for lots of money, so I had to work.”
One morning, after more than a year there, Khamis was cleaning when her employer’s son accused her of being “too slow”.
He threw her off the stairs, breaking her leg. Ironically, the injury set her free: it was so severe that even after a trip to the hospital she simply could not work. Finally, she was allowed to return home.
Khamis is lucky. A number of women returned to Kenya in coffins. Others were subjected to brutal physical violence and sexual assault and their pay withheld even after working for months in slave-like conditions, returning home empty-handed.
Stories like these, illustrated with haunting viral videos of Kenyan women migrant workers pleading for help and means to return to their homes, led the Kenya government in 2014 to shut down thousands of unregulated recruiting agencies and banned Kenyans from migrating to Saudi Arabia for domestic work.
Earlier this year, however, more than a hundred registered recruitment agencies were allowed to resume practice under strict new guidelines.
The government says this time will be different: It’s new National Employment Agency (NEA), the bureau tasked with protecting workers abroad, was launched in May this year.
Roughly, 132 registered recruitment agencies are now authorised to send workers to the Middle East.
NEA acting Director-General Edith Okoki says each agency is required to pay a Sh1.5 million bond.
If an agency sends a worker into an abusive situation, the cost of returning her home will be met through the bond.
New workers also need to undergo a two-week certification course, within a syllabus developed by the government’s National Industrial Training Authority (Nita) and NEA.
It includes homecare training, life skills and pre-departure information taught by a handful of training institutions authorised and vetted by the government.
Some, such as the East Africa Institute of Homecare Management, have gone the extra to give rudimentary Arabic lessons.
The NEA has also published the pre-departure Handbook to Migrant Workers to the United Arab Emirates with basic information on religion, customs and traditions, language, currency and remittances, dressing, labour laws, working hours, dispute settlement, entry requirements, accommodation, mode of transport as well as travel documentation and registration.
In its 2019 Trafficking in Persons report, the US State Department downgraded Saudi Arabia to “Tier 3” — the lowest possible level of compliance with international counter-trafficking goals.
The report identifies abuse of foreign migrant workers as a particular cause for alarm.
“Due to Saudi Arabia’s requirement, under its sponsorship system, for foreign workers to obtain permission for an exit visa from their employers to be able to legally depart the country, some labourers are forced to work beyond their contract term because their Saudi employers use state-sanctioned tools as part of a coercive scheme,” the report says.
Nevertheless, that same year, the Kenyan government signed a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia (as well as Qatar and the UEA), hoping to improve labour conditions for its migrants.
Association of Skilled Migrant Workers of Kenya (Asmak) chairman John Muiruri says the Government initially pushed for a minimum monthly wage of Sh35,000.
The governments settled on Sh27,000 (850 dirham). “For those returning, the Kenya government proposed a minimum pay of 1,000 dirham (around Sh30,000),” Mr Muiruri says.
Kenyan domestic workers have also been added to Saudi Arabia’s Musaned system, an online platform launched in 2014 that tracks workers’ placements and work contracts.
In theory, the system stops bosses from withholding pay, since it’s designed to automatically transfer money from the employer’s account to the employee’s.
Under these new protections, the first wave of newly-accredited Kenyan domestic workers just started to return to the Middle East this year.
Demand for the newly-accredited training programmes is huge, according to Mary Kibe, a project officer at the Centre for Domestic Training and Development.
She says that between 350 and 400 women graduate from the programme each month at the centre.
Edith Murogo, a leading crusader for domestic workers’ rights in Kenya for the past 18 years, attributes the current flow of domestic workers, particularly to Saudi Arabia, to the government’s new protective measures, which include enhanced minimum pay.
“The women domestic workers are returning and fresh ones signing up for employment to Saudi because they now strongly feel that the landscape and conditions have changed, unlike in the past where there was no government involvement in this migration,” she observes.
“They feel a sense of protection and feel better equipped and confident to make the move.”
Anne Mwendwa, 26, who trained for a job in Saudi Arabia, says she is confident about her prospects in the Middle East.
“I was nervous initially,” she said, having heard stories of migrant worker abuse. “But I’ve been prepared, trained, and briefed.”
She added that if something goes wrong, she trusts the new policies to protect her.
Loise Adhiambo, 29, and Halima Njoki, 40, are set to go back to the Middle East and have just finished the required training.
After going through difficulties and what they describe as mistreatment by employers in Bahrain and Qatar, respectively, in 2016, the two still have prospects for a better life for themselves and their families in getting work in Saudi Arabia.
“The first time I went in an illegal situation and chaotic manner through brokers who did not prepare us for what lay ahead,” a more hopeful and confident Ms Adhiambo says.
The young woman says she’s determined to make it in the Gulf countries, to help take care of her father and four siblings.
“Although I had a terrible experience in Bahrain, I have also heard about positive stories of success especially from Saudi Arabia,” Adhiambo, who hopes to earn between Sh27,000 to Sh30,000, adds.
She is in the company of Njoki — a mother of two adult children — who worked in Qatar for close to a year before escaping back home after what she describes as a “harrowing experience” and mistreatment by her Qatari boss.
The government’s renewed interest and involvement in the welfare of migrant domestic workers has convinced her to give the Gulf countries a second try.
“I’ve done enough background to conclude that the amount of work in Saudi households is reasonable and manageable and the working conditions are now better,” she notes, adding, she has a work plan.
“I’ve a work plan and a target. I need to earn some good money and save for two years for a certain investment. Once I’m done, I’ll be confident of a stable future for my family,” she says.
But fears persist that government measures to protect Kenyan workers abroad are more cosmetic than practical.
For instance, the NEA informational website is only available in English, despite the fact that many low-income Kenyans are more comfortable with Kiswahili.
A link on the website promising “Help Lines To Get Help” leads nowhere. (Ms Okoki expressed hope that a helpline will be opened soon, but was unable to offer a concrete timeline for its launch.)
And unlike some migrant-sending countries, such as Bangladesh and the Philippines, the Kenyan government has not yet established any safe houses for workers who flee abusive employers, or set a specific timeline for doing so.
Government agencies do not even seem to know how many Kenyans live in the Gulf, although estimates are at around 60,000.
But Paul Adhoch, the executive director of Trace Kenya, a Mombasa-based counter-trafficking NGO, estimates that there are at least 120,000 Kenyans working in the Middle East, roughly one-third of the group have been trafficked.
Adhoch said that despite repeated requests from Trace, the government has not made the content of the new bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE available to NGOs or to the public.
Worse, Adhoch says, “rogue brokers” have emerged to circumvent the new regulations.
“They say, ‘If you don’t want to wait for a training course, an official visa and a passport, pay me, and I can get you to the Middle East right now,’” said Adhoch.
“These rogue labour brokers traffic workers abroad with fake visas, false promises, and no way to get home. And there’s no disincentive for this.”
Nearly all Kenyan domestic workers abroad, he said, are women.
It is a concern that has also been raised by some of the authorised agents who view the rogue brokers as a threat to smooth migration.
“Before the government’s involvement, we were about 1,050,” says Rosemary Anyiro.
“Today, there are 132 authorised agencies. The question is, where did the rest go to? It means they are around, all over the place since they still have on them their (illegal) contracts,” says Anyiro.
Kenya’s economic and employment crises are driving this. Women are underrepresented in all sectors of the workforce, according to a 2018 report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, therefore risky opportunities in the Middle East often seem like the only option.
And for the 42 percent of Kenyans who live below the poverty line, support from abroad can be a lifesaver — financial remittances account for 2.5 percent of Kenya’s GDP.
“There are few opportunities in this country for low-skilled workers and traditionally in Kenya, domestic workers, who are mainly women, are underpaid by employers who do not respect the set minimum wage, and there is hardly any enforcement.
“In this case, they opt for the opportunities abroad where they are promised better pay,” Murogo, who was instrumental in development of the domestic workers training curriculum, says.
As economic need continues to push Kenyan women abroad, fears persist that tragedy could repeat itself.
In some ways, it already has. Despite Neema Khamis’ own horrifying experience in the Middle East, her younger cousin recently took a job in Bahrain.
But after only three weeks, she returned home – wounds still visible on her face from beatings.
“The government may be well-meaning, but I do not think it can change the attitude those people have towards domestic workers from Africa or Kenya; they view us as slaves,” she says.
Rugene is a Consulting Editor. Jillian Keenan is a contributing journalist for the Fuller Project for International Reporting, a non-profit newsroom investigating issues that most impact women