Remittances sent by Kenyan workers are currently the highest source of forex in the country making Labour migration the biggest export with a return revenue of around 30 billion every month. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, top destinations for migrant domestic workers, are some of the biggest contributors. The government’s increasing dependence on labour migration of workers particularly domestic workers as a way of reducing unemployment (currently standing at 12.7%) and enhancing their revenue is reflective of what Sassen terms the feminisation of survival. Not only are entire families and communities dependent on the labour of poorer women but also governments are seeing their earnings as an important source of revenue.
Moreover, the government also benefits through the revenue from private enterprises (around 302) that derive their profit from recruiting and exporting women domestic workers. In Kenya, these recruitment firms are required to pay an upfront registration fee of KES 500,000 for a permit which they then have to renew annually at a fee of KES 250,000. Additionally, they also have to execute a KES 1.5 million bond in a local bank for the purpose of repatriation which in many cases migrant domestic workers never benefit from. According to research conducted by ThinkTriangle, on average the recruitment fee for a Kenyan domestic worker to Lebanon is KES 210,000 from which recruitment agencies in both Lebanon and Kenya massively profit from. In this way, the burden of survival of various stakeholders is entirely placed on the backs of women workers who have very minimal labour protections and are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
When these women escape these oppressive conditions abroad, they are rarely afforded help by their government and the recruitment agencies and when they return home, they’re subjected to scorn, ridicule and exclusion from their communities. Indeed it is an interesting dynamic in the context of Kenya being a patriarchal society where women are still subjugated, discriminated against and expected to occupy traditional gender roles. This gender inequality is reflected in the experiences of migrant domestic workers who often have limited education, early pregnancies and fewer access to economic opportunities. Some returnees with children noted how their partners had abandoned them and therefore they had no choice but to take on the role of the provider which led to their migration. Jane (not her real name), a recent returnee recounts how she came from a big family and had male siblings but nonetheless she felt the responsibility to provide for herself and her parents was placed on her and this motivated her to migrate abroad.
It is therefore fair to conclude that the negative experiences of returnees are partially shaped by the harsh societal expectations placed on women. When survival of households, communities and government is predicated on these women’s labour, their abandonment of these jobs is met with severe judgement and critique and their wellbeing dismissed. Essentially, they are reduced to simply providers of resources, objects of profit and sources of cheap labour devoid of any rights.
On a more positive note, a more nuanced analysis reveals that returnees who had become their families’ breadwinners are able to exercise more agency within their households as they become the decision makers. In this sense, gender roles and gendered power relations are subverted by this transformation of dynamics within their households and even wider communities therefore reifying the feminist idea that gender is a continuous performance. Additionally, the exposure that returnees have abroad to different cultural and economic settings means they come back equipped with newer skills and knowledge which can ameliorate their autonomy and to an extent free them of cultural expectations placed on women such as imminent marriage, etc.
Nonetheless, the various reintegration challenges that returnees face ultimately become too much and this drives many to consider re-migrating by moving to another employer or country with the hope of having luck on their side.