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[Dehai-WN] Pambazuka.org: The latter day slave merchants in Kenya

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Wed, 16 May 2012 23:10:17 +0200

The latter day slave merchants in Kenya

Julius Okoth

2012-05-16, Issue <http://www.pambazuka.org/en/issue/584> 584


Mass unemployment is forcing thousands of Kenyans into the hands of private
employment bureaus who export them to the Middle East where they often
become trapped in abusive and exploitative work.

In Kenya today, due to the economic reforms packages of the 1990s which
emphasised the deregulation of the state, privatisation and the
liberalisation of the economy, the impact has been unemployment, poverty and
the adoption of multiple survival or coping strategies in order to eke out a

The country's economic growth has not been sufficient to create enough
employment opportunities to absorb the increased labour force of 750,000
people annually. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics [KNBS] reported
that over 2.5 million youths in the country were out of work in 2009. Many
suffer long periods of unemployment, and for those who may find employment,
many have jobs that do not match their qualification. The high unemployment
level and perceived poor prospects in rural areas have spurred many people
to migrate to urban centres to look for better opportunities. With such a
large proportion of job seekers looking for limited paid employment
competition is high.

Due to high unemployment and given that Kenya's Ministry of Labour lacks
coherent labour market information on searching for work and living in a
country which emphasises privatisation and the liberalisation of the
economy, some middle class people have taken advantage of the crisis and
started formal and informal private employment bureaus in urban centres,
which offer flashes of 'easily accessible' jobs and prosperity abroad. They
advertise in newspapers and bulletin boards for job vacancies abroad in
construction, manufacturing and service sectors .The employment bureaus
mostly target unskilled and semi-skilled labourers. An absence of job
placement bureaus operated by the Ministry of Labour and the high
unemployment rate is the potential explanation for the high numbers of
private employment bureaus.

Every day the miserable unskilled and semi-skilled labourers, including
porters, garden sweepers, cleaners, gardeners, glass washers, messengers,
drivers, guards, sanitary attendants, waiters and other attendants like
laundry attendants, bus attendants, room attendants can be seen lining up at
the employment bureaus. Most of them have sold their land and animals to
enable them to pay the fee to employment bureau agents. If they are not able
to pay the fee, they agree with the bureau agent that the money will be paid
back upon arrival to the destination with money obtained from the job

Interviews conducted by the bureau agents are a slave moulding process. In
the bureau one undergoes rigorous check-ups. On top of the list they require
certificate of good conduct from the government to prove that they are not
criminal, and by the time they start to work they will not show any sign of
resistance and will submit completely to the will of the employer. Secondly,
special and particular attention is paid to age. They prefer tall, young
ladies and young men. Thirdly, they do health check ups which include blood
screening and dental checks.

Rarely would private employment bureaus clarify to would-be slaves the entry
and settlement conditions of the country to which they are going. The agents
do not tell them that they can be prevented from entering a country or left
with no rights so that they can work so cheaply, or their presence can be
controlled through contracts, through fixed terms or discontinued. They do
not tell them that their working conditions can be devalued in comparison to
that country's legislation. The employment bureaus do not offer language
training or social and institutional knowledge of the territory in which
they will settle.

Once the unskilled and semi-skilled labourers reach their destination, they
are no longer human in their employers' eyes. They are either good Africans
who fulfill the role that the bosses had for them, or else an incarnation of
the devil and are deported back to Kenya. The common fate is that the
unskilled and semi-skilled employees' passports are confiscated so that they
can be at the mercy of the bosses. The bosses socially control their
movements and own them. They are forced to sign different contracts that
they do not understand, and do different jobs with different wages and
different employers from what they were promised while in Kenya. While
there, they can't access the fundamental rights to income, housing or free
choice of employment. The true picture is that some men are housed in the
most deprived areas or in smaller accommodation with no privacy, social
control and demonization. Most of the house helps are enslaved for the
purpose of sexual exploitation or prostitution.

They become slaves, not because their employers made them so, but also
because they themselves accepted being slaves by registering at private
employment bureaus in Kenya. As they work, their gestures, their movements
are those of the slaves, as their bosses squeeze the last drop of sweat from
them. The bosses could command and manipulate the workers contrary to the
minimum standard of social security of the 1952 ILO convention. They work
with no medical insurance, old age pension, benefits in the case of
industrial accidents and occupational diseases, or protection of pregnant
and nursing mothers.

Private employment bureaus are the newest method of acquiring slaves and
exporting them to the Middle East. Unlike Tippu Tippu [Hamad Bin Muhammed
Bin Juma] a notorious slave trader who terrorised the entire east coast of
Africa in the late 1890s, the latter day slave merchants in Kenya have
internalised slavery in a clever way through employment bureaus, a harder to
see export of slaves, slavery disgust in freedom itself. Although
international organisations for migrant Kenyans defend slavery by contending
that Kenyan workers working abroad generate more foreign currency for the
Kenyan economy than the tourism industry, the result is much worse than
expectations. Most end up working in poorly paid jobs.

Over the past two years the issue of trafficking unskilled and semi-skilled
labourers from Kenya to the Middle East has gathered public attention, which
is to say it has been a fixed issue on the agenda of foreign affairs and
labour ministry, civil society organisations and the media. Though this
problem has always existed, the number of exploited unskilled and
semi-skilled labourers has increased since 2010, and more recently there
have been frightening accounts that have shaken public opinion, as much in
terms of sexual exploitation as in labour exploitation. Interest and concern
from the Kenyan authorities as well as civil society is very scant. Voices
denouncing the exploitation of unskilled and semi-skilled Kenyan labourers
in the Middle East are not loud enough. Social justice activists need to
investigate this situation in detail and ascertain with a clear voice what
form of legislation might be suitable in controlling private employment
bureaus and ways of combating them. However employment bureaus that export
unskilled and semi-skilled are extremely powerful, some are established in
institutionalised web.


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