Recently, we found a Kenyan being featured on BBC regarding her thesis through Twitter. Last year she wrote her MA thesis on Kenyan domestic workers in the Middle East called The Plight of Kenyan Domestic Workers in Gulf Countries, and as we read through her thesis, we became interested in it as it touches upon our work at HAART. You can read the summary of the thesis here and find the full thesis as well.
We interviewed Caroline Gikuru to ask her more about her thesis topic.
Q: Why did you choose to research Kenyan domestic workers in the Middle East?
A: I found it to be an interesting topic, so I wanted to find out why the Kenyan government had placed a ban on migration to the Middle East. I wanted dig a little deeper on this topic but I wasn’t finding any academic research done on the topic. I also have an interest in women’s rights, so this was a great opportunity for me to research a subject matter that is meaningful.
Q: How did you find the people to interview and how was the process of collecting the data?
A: The process was quite challenging especially since I wasn’t based in Kenya. Before leaving California I had a conversation with a friend about my thesis and my interest in conducting primary research. He told me about his cousin who had been working in Dubai and connected me to her. She then identified several women who agreed to be interviewed, but once I arrived in Kenya, all the women she had identified claimed that they had not worked as domestic workers. People aren’t proud to be domestic workers; it’s not the most glamorous job. As a result, I started talking to my family and they helped me identify women that I could interview.. I then asked those women if they knew others I could interview and snowballed it from there.
The first woman I interviewed told me about her neighbor’s horrible experience and suggested that I talk to her. But once I talked to the second interviewee she did not talk about the abuse I had been informed about. People don’t want to be victims or identified as such, especially when there’s no form of recourse. So what I found was that people would mostly talk about physical abuse, food and sleep deprivation but not about sexual abuse. When it came to sexual abuse, they would talk about a “friend’s experience.” I imagine trust was an issue especially because I hadn’t known the interviewees long enough to establish rapport.
Q: Did you have a procedure to identifying victims of human trafficking and what was that procedure?
A: I would say that going into my research I didn’t have it as an objective to identify victims of trafficking. I was more focused on collecting data. So I didn’t have a way of identifying trafficking victims. I was also very careful not to project such a strong victimizing label on anyone.
Q: Have you looked at what has happened to the travel ban since 2012-13 and the situation in Kenya?
A: When I originally started researching this topic, all the media sources were referring to the June 2012 action as a travel ban. However, the official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that I interviewed said it wasn’t ban; it was more like a ‘be-aware-campaign’ and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs isn’t considering it a ban. It seems that if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs admitted it was a ban, it would be required to take action to prevent people from travelling to the Middle East for domestic work. Now, what I understand is that this week or last week [September 2014] the Kenyan government revoked over 900 licenses of recruitment agencies. I’m not aware of any other developments with this matter, but so far there seems to be some traction.
Q: Do you think bilateral agreements between Kenya and Middle Eastern countries could curb human trafficking as well as protect migrants?
A: Bilateral agreements are great because they would put Kenya in a better position to negotiate the terms of employment. Governments could agree how migrant workers in receiving countries should be treated. Bilateral agreements would help to outline the expected working conditions. At the time I did my research (2013) there was only one bilateral agreement between Kenya and Qatar. In terms of international instruments, Kenya hasn’t signed the ILO Convention 189 [the domestic workers convention which recognizes domestic work as decent work]. Bilateral agreements create a platform for negotiating better labour laws for protecting domestic workers, and thus improving their experience while working abroad.
It’s possible that bilateral agreements could drive recruiters to neighboring countries, but I found that some women actually sought out these recruitment agencies. They are motivated by the international wage differential, so if those agencies did not exist in Kenya, some women could seek out an agency in a neighboring country.
Q: If bilateral agreements are not made, what do you think the ministry of labor and other government agencies could do to stop the abuse of Kenyan domestic workers in ME?
A: Even with international laws, enforcement still lies with receiving governments. It is outside the jurisdiction of the Kenyan government to enforce protection measures in receiving countries. That is why I advocate for bilateral agreements because it demonstrates a clear intention and commitment by the receiving countries to ensure that the workers are protected. I also talk about the labor legislation, which is the country’s “main instrument for granting legal protection to workers” as defined by the ILO. If all Middle Eastern countries were to include domestic work in their labour legislation, then that would be a huge step in extending protection to domestic workers because there would be a legal framework for seeking recourse. That might even be a bigger step than bilateral agreements because then domestic work would be considered as decent work, and there would be frameworks for seeking recourse for violating employment guidelines and policies. I say that because even if all countries signed the ILO Convention 189 but there are no enforcement mechanisms, signing onto international conventions is essentially meaningless.
Q: How would you like your thesis being used and what kind of impact would you like it to have?
A: I am glad that somebody has seen my work. I wish for it to revive the public discourse around this issue because it kind of rises and dies, it’s not a steady hot topic which means the struggles of migrant domestic worker sometimes gets forgotten. My desire is for my research findings to serve a role in the domestic work advocacy arena. I would also love to do more in-depth research to see what has changed since my research, because it’s such a dynamic topic.