Speaking to the Daily Nation back in 2015, the Kenyan Ambassador to Saudi Arabia was quoted as saying:

“Between January and August 2015, a total of 1125 Kenyans were deported. It is unfortunate that these returnees will claim all sorts of mistreatment including torture, denied food, held hostage, kept in concentration camps like modern-day slavery

In September last year, local news outlets in Kenya aired (yet another) a heart-rending story about Diana Chepkemoi, a young Kenyan girl who had quit school for a job in Saudi Arabia in the hope of financial freedom.

In her mind the end goal was simple; to earn enough money to be able to pay her way through school. The images and videos that accompanied the story were heartbreaking and tough to look at.

They showed a visibly malnourished, dishevelled and depressed Diana – a far cry from the radiant, beautiful girl who left her country filled with hopes and dreams of a brighter future.

This is no isolated case. There have been numerous stories aired both on mainstream media in the country as well as on other social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Kenyans have lost their lives at the hands of monstrous and unscrupulous employers in Gulf countries. Why would any government sit back and watch while all this happens to its people?

How many more cases must it take before the matter is dealt with conclusively? The nonchalant nature with which government officials, mandated to directly handle issues such as these, go about it is suspect, to say the least.

PS Kamau Macharia once took to his Twitter account and with all his mental facilities intact responded to an AMREF communications director, Lizz Ntonjira, who had expressed concern over the issue:

“We have told Kenyans repeatedly to stop sending this category of workers to Saudi [Arabia]. You’ve chosen not to listen.”

The response, as can be imagined, evoked backlash from Kenyans online and rightfully so. Do you let citizens who are in your charge die and suffer because they keep on applying for Gulf jobs or do you intervene and try to find an inter-governmental solution to the menace making it safe for Kenyans to work anywhere in the world?

Statistics or lack thereof, of Kenyans working in Gulf countries

The intended labour relationship between Kenya and the Gulf countries is one quid pro quo. Kenya is in a position to ease labour shortages (especially unskilled labour) in these countries, while concurrently addressing the unemployment problems its citizenry has been facing for a while now.

On paper, it might seem like this legitimate exchange is what transpires but this couldn’t be any further from the truth.

It has proven quite the uphill task of establishing an accurate figure of just how many Kenyan nationals live and work in Gulf countries, specifically, The UAE and Saudi Arabia. Currently, the arbitrary numbers stand at anywhere between 100,000 on the lower end to 300,000 on the higher end.

This in itself points to a poor (or absolute lack of one) tracking system on the part of the government to determine how many of its citizens are in these countries in search of employment.

It is baffling that a country as advanced as Kenya does not have a system that informs labour migration to enable concerned ministries to keep a robust migrant database and subsequently aid in labour policy-making processes.

Traditionally, the gap in the gulf labour market was filled by Asians and this was sufficient in addressing the shortages faced by said countries.

In recent times, however, the strained diplomatic relationship between some Gulf countries and Asian governments has resulted in a resort to African labour migrants and in notable numbers, Kenyans.

It is no surprise that the said ‘diplomatic strains’ are a result of a failure to reach a consensus regarding migrants’ welfare and labour rights, a factor that the Kenyan government chose to…overlook?

At some point, reason must supersede greed and there has to be less focus on diaspora remittances and more focus on emigration policies and labour protection laws.

Asymmetry of power?

The truth of the matter, albeit sad, is that when it comes to the labour relationship between Kenya and Gulf countries, Kenya finds itself grossly emasculated.

Bitter a pill as this is to swallow, the truth is that due to certain macro factors, the Kenyan government finds itself at pains to do what it is supposed to do to protect its citizens.

Bilateral trade between Kenya and Gulf countries for example means that most times the government has to choose what to prioritize; protecting its citizens from abuse by Gulf employers or upholding crucial trade relations in the interest of the country’s economy.

The Kenyan government has chosen wrong each time. The need for cosier investor relations and warmer diplomatic ties with these countries has continuously been an undoing.

The bilateral maritime cooperation deal inked in 2015 is a great example of just how much Kenya relies on good favour with the Gulf countries.

Employment opportunities (and indeed priority) for seafarers of Kenyan origin, a direct shipping route to Doha, and a multi-sector boost in agriculture, labour, energy, tourism, transport and even construction industries – are a tough-to-pass deal for a developing country.

Such deals also spell out clearly what will in the long foreseeable future prevail over establishing strict labour laws; diplomatic and economic interests.

The soft power tact of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in the form of humanitarian aid is another factor that keeps the government’s foot on the brakes whenever there is a clamour for the labour protection of Kenyans in these countries.

Saudi Fund for Development is a humanitarian aid outfit that has made its mark all over the Kenyan landscape. Dar Al Bern in the UAE runs more than 80 charity programs in the country.

While these organizations and programs offer much-needed assistance to the Kenyan population, they also silently, subtly but resoundingly affect the ability of the Kenyan government to come out and protect its people when it needs to.

Racism- just without a trending hashtag

Taboo and previously prohibited topics of racism and slavery perpetrated in Gulf countries must be a conversation that we can have openly in 2023. Racism goes beyond white–non–white patterns.

There are more subtle forms that are being perpetrated quite loudly yet they do not get the same attention that mainstream racism does.

As a point of clarification, there are Kenyan migrant workers who get to benefit from gainful employment in Gulf countries.

Remittances from Saudi Arabia’s diaspora overtook those from the UK just last year with the amount totalling ksh.3.28 billion against The UK’s ksh.3.1 billion.

On the flip side, the ethnocentrism and superiority complex that is characteristic of most Gulf countries might be the fuelling factor behind the ‘hashtagless’ racism that goes on. One is inclined to think about brown racism as put forward by Robert E. Washington in the book Brown Racism and the Formation of a World System of Racial Stratification.

The Kafala system, (Malit, Jr. and Al Youha, 2013; Gardner 2010) stipulates that migrants are, by and large, owned by their Kafeel who, as a result, have total control over their legal and mobility status while in the country, is a subject of debate.

Qatar abolished the punitive system but some of these countries still adhere to it. Also important to remember is the fact that even though slavery was abolished years ago, it has not rendered racism and discrimination obsolete.

The Kenya/African – Gulf labour flow cannot be ignored. It benefits the Kenyan unemployed population while also filling in the largely unskilled labour gap in Gulf countries. There is a need to draft and implement binding labour cooperation agreements.

The Kenyan government through concerned ministries must ensure that the recruitment of labour to gulf countries is strictly regulated. The government must strike a balance between advancing international relations and protecting its people. It is long overdue.

Cover Photo by Cottonbro Studio/Pexels