Kenya plans to lift ban on citizens working in the Gulf

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Working as a tutor for three children from a wealthy family in Qatar, Kenyan migrant Wairimu did not suspect that her employer's offer to take her for a medical check-up was a ploy to confiscate her passport.

Three months later, she is trapped as she has yet to muster up the courage to ask her to return the document so that she can quit her job.

"I came here to be a tutor ... but my boss wants me to do housework and still help the children ... It is too much work," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Doha.

"Without a passport, I can neither get another job nor travel back home ... [My employer] has also become hostile and rude to me and it is hard for me to approach her."

Kenya plans to lift a ban on its citizens working in the Gulf - introduced in 2014 because of abuses - with new safeguards, such as requiring recruitment agencies to pay a security bond so they can repatriate any distressed migrants.

But experts fear that the new rules will not protect them amid corruption, greed and desperation for a better life. Lured by the promise of well-paid work and a chance to escape joblessness at home, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans are thought to be employed in the Middle East, sending much-needed remittances to their families every year.

Domestic workers are often kept under lock and key by their employer, forced to work more than 18 hours a day, deprived of food and wages and physically and sexually abused, activists say.

Visa-sponsorship rules in Qatar, known as the kafala system - used in several Gulf Arab countries - mean migrant workers like Wairimu cannot change jobs without their employer's consent and can be charged with absconding if they flee.

Kenya signed bilateral labour agreements with Qatar and Saudi Arabia in November, pledging the security of Kenyan migrant workers in the two states, and issued licences to 29 recruitment agencies in Kenya.

All agencies had lost their licences in the 2014 crackdown. Rights groups praised the latest move.

"It is a step in the right direction as it indicates a serious commitment by Saudi to enforce and protect the human and labour rights of Kenyans working in the country," said Jacqueline Munyaka, a Nairobi-based labour lawyer.

Registered agencies must have a physical office and submit quarterly reports to the government on their overseas migrants, Labour Minister Phyllis Kandie said while unveiling the names of the newly accredited agencies.

She said the agencies also have to pay a security bond of 500000 to 1.5-million Kenyan shillings (R60550 to R181652) for the government to repatriate workers in emergencies.

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