Despite reports of abuse and inhumane treatment of foreign domestic employees in the Middle Eastern country, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the fastest-growing source of remittances, indicating increased migration of jobless Kenyan workers.
According to new government data based on financial transfers through legitimate channels, diaspora remittances from Saudi Arabia have more than quadrupled in the last two years.
According to Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) data, Kenyans residing in Saudi Arabia transferred Sh22.65 billion ($188.79 million) home in the first eight months of the year.
This places the Gulf country third in terms of remittances to Kenya, after the United Kingdom (25.4 billion) and the United States (Sh188.8 billion).
Inflows have increased by three-quarters compared to Sh12.96 billion ($107.99 million) in the same period last year, representing a 144.35 percent increase over Sh9.27 billion ($77.26 million) in 2020 — the fastest rise during the period.
Saudi Arabia relies on millions of low-wage foreign employees, including housemaids, caregivers, nannies, drivers, and security guards, who send money home each year.
More than a third of the 35 million people in the oil-rich kingdom are migrants, many of whom are from Asian and African nations.
However, Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman, has long been chastised by rights groups for its visa-sponsorship system, which exposes migrant workers to abuse and exploitation.
Domestic workers are frequently locked up by their employers, forced to work more than 18 hours a day, denied food and money, and physically and sexually assaulted, according to advocates.
According to CBK statistics, remittances from Saudi Arabia are on track to surpass cash wired from the United Kingdom, having surpassed South Africa, which had been the second-largest source of money transfer from Kenyans working overseas.
According to Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau, nearly 100,000 Kenyans are employed in non-domestic jobs in Saudi Arabia.
“Countries like Saudi Arabia, their traditions around house work are very ‘ancient’ so you find people who suffer terrible beatings and abuse are usually house helps,” Mr Kamau said.
“In that same country where we have over 100,000 Kenyans working in different capacities, hotels, taxis, they have no problem. So we have to ask ourselves if we are exporting the right category of personnel and do they have the right capacity and training to understand that culture.”
The Gulf nations’ visa-sponsorship restrictions, known as the kafala system, bind migrant employees to their employer and prevent them from changing employment or leaving the country without authorization.
This has resulted in rampant mistreatment of migrant workers, ranging from passport seizure to unpaid salaries and excessive work hours, as well as beatings and even rape by male family members.
Kenyan authorities have been under great pressure to put safeguards in place to protect residents fleeing joblessness in an economy that is failing to produce work for its rising young population.
Legislators authorized a Sh374 million investment in the Sh3.3 trillion budget for the fiscal year ending June 2023 to create a safe house in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, to provide sanctuary to Kenyan employees experiencing mistreatment in that nation.
Saudi diaspora remittances touched a monthly high of Sh3.19 billion ($26.6 million), up from Sh1.99 billion ($16.56 million) in August last year and Sh1.25 billion ($10.43 million) in August 2020.
This has secured its position as the third-largest source of income returned home by Kenyans living abroad, after only the United States and the United Kingdom, whose inflows have been slowing due to decades of high inflation, which has eaten into wages.
Inflows from Kenyans living in the United States increased at a slower pace of 12.17 percent during the eight-month period to Sh187.82 billion ($1.565 billion), while those from the United Kingdom fell 11.10 percent to Sh25.44 billion.
Overall, remittances grew 11.44 percent year-over-year in the January-August 2022 period to Sh320.94 billion ($2.67 billion), consolidating its position as Kenya’s top forex earner ahead of tea exports, tourist receipts and horticultural exports.