Kenya’s Domestic Workers Bill: Implications

Published on 9th October 2012

Domestic worker                                        Photo courtesy
In June 2011, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) passage of Convention 189 which sets out salary schemes and benefits through the provision of better pay and enhanced benefits for domestic workers has gained international status. In essence, the ILO convention demands that countries enact rules that see domestic workers receive annual leave, maternity leave, social security cover and a minimum wage to protect over an estimated 100 million domestic workers, majority who are women.

The Philippines became the only second country after Uruguay to ratify the treaty in September this year after meeting the minimum number of ratifications needed to bring it to effect. According to an opinion piece by Muthoki Mumo reported on the 15th of September edition of Kenya’s Daily Nation online newspaper, despite Kenya having voted for the convention to be passed in 2011, it is yet to ratify it, meaning that the provisions are not yet enforceable locally, although most of the provisions of the convention are already part of current Kenyan law.

Mumo reports that few employers are complying with these provisions. Last year, the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE) pointed out that the salaries proposed would be well beyond the reach of the average Kenyan seeking the services of a domestic worker. Given such reactions, the author cautions that measures to increase domestic wages could see Kenyans do away with domestic help altogether or alternatively demand higher pay to afford domestic workers. With potential loss of employment domestically, trends in domestic labour migration would possibly increase, most significantly to the high demand in the Gulf market. Of late however, reports are rife on the ‘dangers’ of working abroad, specifically in the Gulf, as domestic workers. Allegations of gross abuse of human rights are persistent, mostly affecting women.

There is need for Kenya to establish mechanisms of protecting its citizens working abroad. The country needs to borrow lessons from the Philippines, specifically from the workings of the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Association (OWWA). Now that the Philippines ratified the “Kasambahay bill” [Domestic Workers Bill] in early September this year, the Bill stands to benefit not only close to 2 million “yayas,” cooks or gardeners who make domestic life a little bit easier for many Filipinos but equally benefit Filipinos who work as household help in different parts of the world, particularly the Middle East, Europe and North America.

Indeed like Kenya, many Filipina domestic workers have their share of ill treatment while working abroad, more significantly in the Middle East. With rising incidences, the government of the Philippines banned travel for employment to the region in 2011. Kenya has equally followed a similar suit; based on a report by Jacey Fortin in the International Business Times of June this year, the Kenyan government has restricted its citizens from seeking domestic work in the Middle East citing numerous reports of abuse and violence.

Incidentally, Indonesia was the first county to ban its citizens from working as domestic helpers in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia was reportedly the focus of this announcement by the Kenyan authorities, since the Kingdom harbours a relatively high number of Kenyans, an estimated 3,000 according to the International Organization of Migration. To counter such violations in the future, Kenya intends to enact stricter regulations, including the vetting of recruiting agencies and a more thorough oversight of the recruiters, before allowing for the resumption of this labour export.

With total remittance inflows (from all countries with Kenyan immigrant workers) being on the upswing in recent years [where such inflows jumped from about US$641 million in 2010 to more than US$891 million in 2011, according to the Central Bank of Kenya, with 2012 suggesting another bountiful leap in remittances], stopping Kenyan domestic workers from travelling to the Middle East will surely put a dent in that income flow. However, Jacey is quick to note that for the families of women who might have ultimately faced abuse at the hands of their employers abroad, this measure is a small price to pay.

In developing countries, the ILO reports that domestic workers make up at least 4 to 12 percent of wage employment, of which 83 percent are women or girls and many are migrant workers. The ILO therefore notes that the treaty would extend standards to a group which continues to be poorly regulated and remains largely part of the informal sector. With the fear that no major migrant-receiving country has ratified the convention, thereby placing the plight of domestic workers, contracted or otherwise, at continued risk of inhuman treatment, the move by the Philippines in passing the “Kasambahay bill” has sent strong messages to receipt countries such as Saudi Arabia where an estimated two million Filipinos work in the Kingdom, of which 20 percent are employed in households.

In this regard, the Saudi government has come to a mutual agreement with the Philippines in implementing a “pioneering” standard employment contract for newly hired Filipino domestic workers in the country, a document that Philippine officials report would provide for higher compensation, better working conditions and benefits for household workers in a country. This follows a decision by Saudi Arabia to lift its ban on the deployment of Filipino household service workers (HRWs) coming after a move last year when the Saudi government stopped processing, verifying, and authenticating applications from the country’s domestic workers following disagreements in wages. Kenya can thus borrow a leaf from countries like the Philippines, where in this respect I quote the Philippines’ Vice President, Jejomar Binay, who also holds the portfolio of Presidential Adviser on Overseas Foreign Workers (OFW) concerns;

“Hopefully, this will be a model for other countries to adopt. Through this contract, we hope our workers will be treated with respect and dignity”-Vice President Jejomar Binay.

The new contract applies to incoming household workers in Saudi Arabia, where the demand for Filipino workers continue. It is in this light that I opine that passing of the Domestic Workers Bill in Kenya, like the Philippines, will ensure the protection of domestic worker not just domestically, but beyond borders. After all charity begins at home!

By Satwinder S. Rehal

The author is an Associate Professor in the Department of Consular and Diplomatic Affairs of De La Salle College of Saint Benilde, Manila, The Philippines, and an Honorary Teacher in the School of Population, Communication & Behavioural Sciences, the University of Liverpool (UK).

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