When Patricia Balongo left Kenya to work as a nanny and maid in Lebanon in 2014, she thought she had landed a dream job that would allow her to support her family back home.
Instead, she spent two years imprisoned in her employer’s house, being exploited and mistreated.
Taking care of four children, including a newborn baby, while also doing all the household chores, Balongo was expected to be up any time of the night to tend to the baby and then start her day at 4 a.m. to prepare the family’s breakfast and get the children ready for school. She was allowed one meal of leftovers a day. Communication with her family was restricted to 10 minutes every two months.
“To ensure I didn’t get out of the house, my employer would lock the doors whenever they left,” Balongo says.
When her contract ended, she was forced to work three more months unpaid before she was allowed to return home. “I never thought such a day would come and that I would ever come back home,” she says, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Patricia was one of the estimated 57,000–100,000 Kenyans who travel to the Middle East every year, most of them going to work as domestic workers, according to Kenya’s Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Services.
But at the time she was working as a domestic worker, she wasn’t even supposed to be in Lebanon. In 2012, the Kenyan government suspended the licenses of recruitment firms that were sending citizens to in the Middle East, following stories of Kenyan women being mistreated, abused or even dying in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Lebanon. In 2015, the government went one step further and gave Saudi Arabia “formal notification” not to issue visas for domestic workers without the Kenyan foreign ministry’s approval.
Then in April this year, Kenya agreed to send 100,000 skilled and semi-skilled workers to Saudi Arabia. As part of the deal, the two countries said they would collaborate to try to end the abuse of domestic workers. Kenya’s labor ministry lifted its ban on Kenyans doing domestic work in the Middle East in November and announced a new set of measures that it says will protect Kenyan domestic workers from exploitation and abuse when they go to work abroad.
Among the government’s reforms, some of which had already been in effect for several months before they were announced, is a new vetting committee that will only allow approved agencies to recruit domestic workers to work abroad. The committee has so far approved 29 agencies – compared with the thousands of recruitment agencies that were operating unchecked before the ban went into effect in 2012.
Foreign agents will also be required to register with the ministry.
“Only those agencies that are licensed and accredited will be allowed to recruit workers,” says Kenya’s labor cabinet secretary Phyllis Kandie. “The names of accredited agencies will be publicized so that Kenyans can vet them and know which agencies to use.”
Another reform requires approved recruitment agencies to pay a $15,000 bond and $5,000 registration fee every year.
“Now, if Kenyans are stranded it will be easier for us to get the money to repatriate them back into the country, since there is a guaranteed bond,” says Kandie.
A new national labor market information system will hold details on migrant workers and help keep track of Kenyans working abroad. “A country like Saudi Arabia is big and we need to keep track of the locations of the Kenyan workers,” says Kandie.
The ministry has sent labor attaches to the Kenyan missions in three Gulf states: United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The attaches will be tasked with helping Kenyan workers settle in the countries, and handle the cases of those who report being mistreated by their employers.
Kenya’s government also wants to make sure Kenyans are prepared before they leave the country to take on domestic work. In January, the National Industrial Training Authority will launch a curriculum that trains Kenyans in basic housework and teaches them about cultural differences – such as the requirement in some countries that women wear a hijab or headscarf – to ready them for work in a foreign country.
But all of these changes come too late for Patricia Balongo, who is now working as a cleaner at a restaurant in Nairobi. She says that while the government focuses on the reforms, it also needs to do more to educate young Kenyan women working in the Middle East on how to avoid potentially abusive situations and where to get help if they need it. For example, she says, she had no idea how to get in touch with the Kenyan ambassador when she was looking for ways to escape her employer in Lebanon.
Even as the government makes moves to ensure what happened to Balongo doesn’t happen to any other Kenyan woman, she says she will never feel safe again.
“I would rather die poor than go back to that country for work, even if I am promised a lot of money,” she says.