The following text is a conversation between two Pearson College students, Kamene (K) (PC44) from Kenya and Zaid (Z) (PC44) from Jordan that follows their ideas and opinions on a key social issue in both of their countries.

Kamene

I was scrolling through my feed a few days ago, and I came across a news article talking about the mistreatment of the migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, in particular, a Kenyan woman who had been burnt and physically abused by her employer. The woman was seeking refuge to go back to Kenya but, as her passport was in her employer’s possession, she was ultimately deported. The case was never heard in Lebanese nor Kenyan law courts. Growing up, I have seen stories like this highlighted in the mainstream media and have always been curious about hearing different perspectives, especially from someone like you, the person on the receiving end of laborers from developing countries.

Thank you for asking. I personally relate to this issue as many of my relatives have a domestic worker at their house, and my family had domestic workers when I was young. The workers come from many different countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, Philippines, Sri-lanka, Bangladesh and some others. The living situation of the workers I know has been quite good; however, I can’t say the same for all workers in Jordan or the Middle East.

Zaid

Kamene

Interesting. What do you think is the cause of the maltreatment of migrant domestic workers in the Middle East? Do you think it’s more about the power dynamics between an employer and employee as employers have an inherent authority bestowed upon them by agents? Or do you think it’s an issue of the tense racial relationships between the people from the host countries and people from migrant countries?

I don’t think the discrimination is coming from a racial standpoint, but rather related to what I would call economic superiority. The employing families feel that they have leverage above the worker because they’re giving the workers money to send to their home countries for financial support, and the value of the money is more significant in the workers’ countries.

Zaid

Kamene

So basically, I could argue that the root cause of this maltreatment of domestic workers stems from the income inequality that exists in developing countries. The same inequality eventually fuels domestic workers to go work in the Middle East or other developed countries. And because of this desire to break free from the pre-existing poverty cycle and to be able to provide for their families, it becomes hard for them to go back home while their employers are mistreating them. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think capitalism has contributed to this?

It is definitely a cause. The system has many flaws, but the feel of economic superiority is also a significant cause. In addition, there is a complementary demand for domestic labor along with a huge supply of workers who are willing to take risks and work abroad in order to support their families.

Zaid

Kamene

In my perspective, I think that when Kenyan workers move to the Middle East, they’re seeking much better pay because, in Kenya, the pay is terrible compared to Jordan, with a domestic worker receiving, say, 60 dollars a month. But in Jordan, a domestic worker could be earning 200 dollars a month, and that’s a lot of money if you convert it to Kenyan shillings. However is it worth it considering the conditions they are working in?

To clarify everything, let’s just describe the situation from the beginning and see the whole picture and the relevant parties involved. So we first have the workers coming from the countries that are willing to send labor to foreign countries. And then we have agencies in that country who find those workers and connect them to agents in host countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and I think most of the Gulf countries. So these two agents are the part that connects the two countries together. And then we have on one end of the chain an employer who just goes to the agents in his country and asks them for a worker to employ. The agent connects the workers and the employers together, and then they both sign on the “contract” that has all the working terms. The agent receives a fee for this connection that could reach up to 5500 USD. There are many issues with the contract system: personally, I don’t think the terms comply with human rights or the International Labor Organization. Also, another loophole is that we don’t know the extent of education the workers had before accepting the contract, and the extent of their knowledge to what is signed. I remember hearing of a worker from Uganda expecting to come and study in Jordan, but the agents tricked and forced her into signing a contract to work for two years at a household.

Zaid

Kamene

I feel that there’s a missing link within the system itself in terms of the disconnection between the agencies, agents, countries and the people. Say the woman who’s thinking she’s coming to study but ends up being a domestic worker – that’s a problem of miscommunication between agents and the people they’re sending, an act fueled by corruption.

I don’t think it’s a case of miscommunication. I think it’s a clear case of human trafficking where you’re tricking people into blindly falling for a hoax; the reasoning of miscommunication cannot justify such issues.

Zaid

Kamene

Yeah, that’s true. I think that the contracting agencies make a lot of money from the domestic work industry. Hence, there is an emergence of agencies that have almost turned into human trafficking. For others, the agents leave out key information when handing out contracts to domestic workers and thus the workers sign up for jobs that do not match up to their expectations.

And yet another problem with the system is the way in which the terms of the contract are applied. When employers face problems with the workers; for example, they refuse to work, the employer sends them to the agent. Agents deal with this differently depending on the educational level of the worker and their fluency in communication. In some extreme cases, if the agent is not able to communicate with the worker clearly, they resort to violence and beating as a method of disciplining the worker.

Zaid

Kamene

There is a major difference between contracts signed in Africa and other prominent labor supplying countries like the Philippines: their government has actually invested in training and labor organizations for migrant workers, guaranteeing good working conditions. However, for my country, Kenya, the government only intervened after much pressure from social media. I was reading this article describing how the government of Kenya has resorted to retraining domestic workers in order to increase the country’s remittance income. The problem with this is an extreme emphasis on the economic gain over the welfare of Kenyan citizens. It almost seems like people are being used as mere products to fuel capitalism. When highly skilled workers go to work abroad, who is actually taking care of them when they are there? Because it’s definitely not the people in the Kenyan embassy. And how do we move forward from the historical trauma and abuse that domestic workers have endured in the Middle East?

As you said, there are certain ways where governments can demand certain terms for the hosting countries that they need to comply with in order to send workers to the host country. Filipino workers in Jordan could have a wage of up to 400 USD per month whereas for Kenyan workers it’s stuck at around 250 USD. There is also a difference in the working hours, days off, etc. This discrepancy shows how governments can ensure, to a certain extent, some working conditions for their workers abroad.

Zaid

Kamene

Do you think that it’s more effective for governments to put in this set of rules or to actually cap off an influx of domestic work? From my logic, I feel like people shouldn’t be feeding an industry that’s already flawed. We don’t have adequate resources to ensure that our people are protected. The best thing would be to just protect and prevent Kenyan workers from working in the Middle East until we have better systems that are ready. I don’t know if it’s really a solution, but in contrast to what I am seeing, my government prioritizing economic gain over the people’s welfare, we should put the people’s welfare over economic gain. Also, what’s your take on how different regulations could ensure a certain level of rights?

I think it is an effective solution, using government agreements amongst nations, embassies, and diplomats to negotiate the terms countries are willing to send their workers. While this might be effective, its capability of changing the society’s mentality, the economic hierarchy or the cases of abuse is questionable. Generally speaking, all parents are willing to go to the end of the earth to support their families. They will risk their dignity or even their lives if it means a better life for their families. I think employers realize this desperate need for money from the workers and the fact that money is much more valuable for some workers because of the different costs of living. Although this work agreement could help support some families, it is not a justification for the economic hierarchy and the violation of human rights.

Zaid

Kamene

We shouldn’t be pushing people to the extent that they feel trapped in a system they can’t leave! As much as a worker is in dire need of funds, I believe that there can never be a justification for allowing people to work in poor conditions. I firmly advocate that governments should institute systems like welfare that protect the low income earning families; so that when pushed to extremes like this, they have a definite way out and a means to meet their costs of living.

Kamene Mang'oka & Zaid Dwikat

Author Kamene Mang'oka & Zaid Dwikat

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