The latter day slave merchants in Kenya

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
May 10th, 2012

Julius Okoth
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 living.

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 provided.

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.

Julius Okoth is a community mobiliser for Bunge La Mwananchi

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