Kenya's Domestic Workers Find Hope with Union

Photo by Solidarity Center

Like many women in Mombasa, Kenya, Alice Mwadzi says for years she barely eked out a living. A lack of jobs in the port city for many means a constant struggle to survive—selling fruit on busy highways or hauling carts stacked with heavy water containers through congested streets—involving long hours of often back-breaking work for nearly no pay.

“I was suffering so bad,” she says, remembering the time in 2012 when, desperately trying to support herself and three children, including a newborn son, a labor broker approached her. “He told me, ‘Alice, there is a chance you can change your life. You can go to the Middle East and have a different life so you’ll be a rich person.’”

To support her children and pay for their education, Mwadzi made the hard decision to leave them behind and become a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.

“I was sure after two years, I’d have a change in my life. It was my only hope in life,” she says.

Without the Union, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Would Be’

But before she traveled, an organizer from Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) came to her house and invited her to a three-day training workshop. There, she learned how to educate domestic workers about their rights in Kenya and abroad. Ultimately, she became an organizer with KUDHEIHA, a Solidarity Center ally.

“If not for KUDHEIHA, I don’t know where I would be,” says Mwadzi. “They taught us how to get jobs organizing—to educate domestic workers on their rights.”

Over the past five years, Mwadzi signed up 200 domestic workers with the union and helps women seeking to go abroad get jobs in Kwale, a town southwest of Mombasa, where she is based. “I go door to door to give them hope,” she says with pride.

Lack of Good Jobs Fuels Migration

Informal economy jobs—street vending, motorcycle driving, day labor—comprise the vast majority of work options available in Kenya, where 2.5 million people toil in irregular, precarious jobs compared with 900,000 in the formal sector. In Mombasa and Kwale counties, an informal KUDHEIHA survey found that 60 percent of the workforce were casual or seasonal employers. Strikingly, many employers who now hire informal economy workers had until recently hired workers full time.

“Casual employment is the root cause of migrant workers moving for employment,” says Zacheaus Osore, KUDHEIHA Mombasa Branch secretary.

Kenya is not unique. The informal economy accounts for more than half of the global labor force, and most of the jobs do not pay enough for workers to support their families. Workers in the informal economy often face dangerous working conditions, with no health care or other social protections, and have no job security.

Living in extreme poverty despite working long hours, such workers are vulnerable to exploitative labor brokers, some of whom are their relatives or friends, whose offers of employment in countries like those in the Middle East frequently are based false promises. In Kenya, women signing on for domestic work in Saudi Arabia were told they would receive 23,000 Kenya shillings ($221) a month, only to find the pay significantly less and the working and living conditions inhumane.

Many Labor Brokers Cheat Workers Desperate for Good Jobs

In Kenya and around the developing world, labor brokers haunt villages, towns and cities, preying on women and men trying to support their families and make a better life for their children. Unscrupulous labor brokers will not show workers their contracts until they are at the airport or bus station, and frequently, the contracts are written in Arabic or a language the workers cannot understand. When they arrive at their destination, the contracts may even change.

Although Kenya recently passed a law regulating labor agents, KUDHEIHA leaders say the law is rarely enforced, and the union is pushing for better enforcement. KUDHEIHA also is working for laws that make it mandatory for informal economy employers to pay into the country’s social protection funds.

In a series of recent interviews in Mombasa, workers who returned from the Arabian Gulf describe their experiences working abroad and the conditions that drove them to grasp for the glimmer of hope they thought would improve their lives. They spoke out, sometimes choking through tears, because they want others to learn from their struggles and because, they say, they never want anyone else to endure what they did.


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