Modern Day Slavery Under the Guise of Domestic Work: The Plight of Kenyan Workers in the Middle East

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that, as of 2015, there were around 3.16 million domestic workers employed across the Arab states. This is largely due to the deficits in social care for the young, sick, and elderly across the region, leading to changes in household structures. This has also contributed to the increased recruitment of domestic workers from developing countries to work in households as nannies, cooks, and maids. Families in the Gulf states are willing to pay relatively more than what many of these domestic employees could earn in their home countries, which, in the case of Kenya, explains why 57,000 to 100,000 people travel to the Middle East for work every year. The Kenyan government will often train women to become domestic workers in the Gulf states through education about cultural differences and customs to help improve their employability.

Domestic work represents the possibility of a better life for low-income women, especially as any additional income from these roles may help women support themselves and their families. However, these workers are subject to the kafala system, whereby a domestic worker’s legal status in the country is tied to their employer. This system places domestic workers at risk of labour trafficking, physical, mental, and sexual abuse. Migrant domestic workers are often excluded from labour legislation in host countries, which leaves them at the mercy of their employers until their contract is up. According to the ILO, the “informal, unregulated and isolated nature of [this] work” makes domestic workers vulnerable to abuse and often leaves them stranded in foreign countries with little help and no escape. 

The abuse inflicted on domestic workers can range from withheld wages and limited food to verbal, sexual, and physical abuse. According to Balongo, a Kenyan woman that worked in the Middle East, “to ensure I didn’t get out of the house, my employer would lock the doors whenever they left,” Balongo’s account highlights the extent of servitude to which domestic workers are subjected. Lebanon is one of the Gulf countries where some of the worst treatment of migrant workers, akin to modern-day slavery, has been observed. In 2008, Human Rights Watch found that around one domestic worker a week died in Lebanon of unnatural causes such as suicides or falls from tall buildings, namely during escapes. A decade later, a video emerged of the brutal assault of two Kenyan women by two men and a woman on the streets of Beirut. The victims, Rosa and Shamila, were arrested and threatened with deportation while their attackers went free, as happens most often. 

English | November 16, 2021



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