The Plight of Kenyan Domestic Workers in Gulf Countries (2013)

Kenyan Caroline Muthoni Gikuru wrote her Master’s thesis on The Plights of Kenyan Domestic Workers in Gulf Countries in 2013 as part of her MA in International Studies at the University of San Francisco, United States. Her thesis consisted of interviews with Kenyan female migrants who had returned to Kenya after working in the Middle East as domestic workers (house help).  Gikuru states that foreign domestic workers, including Kenyans, in the Middle East are subjected to various forms of abuse which includes sexual and physical abuse, psychological abuse, non-payment of wages, and food and sleep deprivation. After some pressure, the Kenyan government banned its citizens from migrating to the Middle East for domestic work in June 2012. However, Gikuru states that this is a short term solution because it does not outline protection measures for domestic workers who remain in the Gulf following the implementation of the ban. In addition, Kenyans have travelled to the Middle East despite of the ban.

Therefore, the questions Gikuru asks are

What compels Kenyan women to continue to seek domestic work in the Gulf Countries despite warnings and the travel ban? What working and living conditions are these women subjected to in the destination countries? What does the travel ban aim to accomplish? And, what steps has the Kenyan government taken to protect its female citizens who seek domestic work, continue to migrate, and remain in Middle East after the implementation of the ban?

Gikuru explains the mistreatment of foreign domestic workers to be the result of both cultural facts as well as bad policies and labor laws. Firstly, the Saudi government freed slaves as late as in 1962, which means that a large portion of the population of that country grew up and were socialized with the notion that slavery is not taboo and is synonymous with Africans. Gikuru claims that there is a culture of acceptance of slavery and mistreatment of foreigners, especially Africans. Secondly, the laws in the Middle East do not protect domestic workers. 99% of domestic workers were excluded from the scope of the countries’ labor laws in the Middle East as of 2010. Despite the exclusion, domestics in the Middle East are sometimes required to sign mandatory employment contracts. These contracts should offer a degree of protection, but in practice they do not, because the contract is basically an agreement between two private parties, and domestic workers find it difficult, if not impossible, to have the contracts enforced in a court of law. Thirdly, the kafala system set up by the Gulf Cooperation Council in the 1950’s requires a migrant to be sponsored by a citizen or government agency; this sponsorship is the only way for migrant workers to get an entry visa and residence permit. This puts migrant workers in a precarious position as often employers confiscate the worker’s passport and identification card to ensure that the worker does not leave. Gikuru states that this link between employment and residential status grants the employer too much control over the worker. The worker is unable to flee the country because they do not have the necessarily documents in their possession.

In Gikuru’s study all the interviewees expect one said to have had their passport confiscated immediately after arrival. If an employee runs away because they are mistreated by their employer they often face imprisonment which is justified as punishment for breaking the contract. In one case a domestic worker who had been abused by her employer run away. She was arrested by the police and locked up for three months after which she was deported. Having worked for five months, she was deported without ever being paid anything, because her employer simply refused to pay her.

Apart from having their passports confiscated and being imprisoned prior to deportation, Gikuru found there to be 10 other types of abuse and mistreatment that domestic workers in the Middle East face. These are

  1. Physical abuse
  2. Sexual abuse
  3. Psychological abuse
  4. Verbal abuse
  5. Sleep deprivation
  6. Food deprivation
  7. labor exploitation
  8. Movement restriction
  9. Racism
  10. Religious intolerance

Gikuru found that while it is possible that some migrant women have been deceived about the type of work that they will be employed to do, some are well aware that they will be domestic workers. However, they certainly do not willingly submit to being abused and overworked, and be deprived of their hard earned salary.

To tackle the issue of mistreatment of Kenyan domestic workers in the Middle East, Gikuru suggests bilateral agreements between Kenya and each Middle Eastern country. This would mean that Kenya’s Ministry of Labour would serve as the recruiter. Gikuru explains that Kenya has never had a policy outlining the rights of migrant domestic workers, which explains the absence of bilateral agreements.

Gikuru’s full thesis can be found at

The Plight of Kenyan Domestic Workers in Gulf Countries