Saudi Arabia slavery reports exaggerated and quite harmfulBy THUITA MWANGI | Friday, April 20 2012 at 11:56
Recent highly-publicised media reports on Kenyan migrant workers in Saudi Arabia have painted an extremely grim picture of the living and working conditions in that country.
The authors of these reports have sought to sensationalise some incidents of maltreatment of domestic workers as representing 21st Century slavery in Saudi Arabia. This is simply not true.
I would like, at the outset, to point out that Kenya values the excellent bilateral relations it enjoys with Saudi Arabia.
These bonds of friendship, characterised by several centuries of cultural and trade contacts between the Arabian Peninsular and the East African Coast, were today exemplified by the large number of Kenyans living and working in Saudi Arabia, as well as the many pilgrims who visited that country each year.
Thousands of Kenyans continued to earn decent livelihoods as drivers, technicians, salesmen, security guards, engineers, accountants, bankers and domestic workers.
In total, more than 100,000 skilled and semi-skilled Kenyans were today working in the Gulf Cooperation Council states.
In the last three months alone, the Saudi Embassy had processed more than 8,000 work permits for Kenyans, a huge escalation compared to the previous average of 17,000 permits every year.
It is undeniable that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had, in a span of two years, facilitated the repatriation of a significant number of Kenya domestic workers in distress.
This number had tended to increase as the demand for migrant labour, especially domestic househelp had grown. Regrettably, the lucrative business of recruiting these workers had fallen into unscrupulous hands.
I would, however, wish to caution that as the media went about reporting claims of torture and other forms of maltreatment of Kenyans by their employers in Saudi Arabia, it was important to do so with a sense of balance and proportion to guard against tarnishing the reputation of the Saudi people as a whole.
Some of the reports were spurious as they had been deliberately peppered with falsehoods. An example of such a story, which was later recanted, was that of a domestic worker being forced to feed on snakes, aired by a TV channel.
It is for this reason that the ministry considered it duty-bound to dispel the outrageous suggestion that there existed modern-day slavery, which was practised on Kenyan workers.
Likewise, it had been implied in some of the reports that there had been complicity on the part of the Saudi Government. That was also not true.
The Saudi Embassy in Nairobi has been cooperative and shown a lot of goodwill in working with the ministry to address problems faced by Kenyan workers.
There was, in fact, ongoing dialogue between the two governments to conclude a bilateral labour agreement that would increase protection of workers and also address the plight of migrants in distress.
Similarly, to protect Kenyans from illegal or clandestine recruitment agents, the government had put the following long-term mechanisms in place:
•Private employment agencies and agents were now required to submit their recruitment returns to the Ministry of Labour for vetting, accreditation and monitoring, including employment of domestic workers’ contracts.
•Private foreign employment recruitment agents must submit their labour market information to local private employment agents.
•Kenyans seeking employment abroad were required to verify the authenticity of any employment contracts with the Ministry of Labour.
•The Ministry of Foreign Affairs would also, upon request, verify individual job offers with the relevant authorities of the intended country of employment.
It is important to note that support from the Government of Saudi Arabia had impacted very positively on Kenya’s development efforts, especially in the areas of health, road infrastructure and water supply.
Therefore, as we report these stories, we must do so with a high sense of responsibility and fairness in order not to bring harm or undermine the quest of many hardworking and law-abiding Kenyans striving to earn a living in Saudi Arabia.
-Mr Mwangi is the permanent secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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