NAIROBI— Young Kenyans facing a tough job market at home are traveling abroad for work at hotels and homes in the Middle East. While recruiters promise steady work at a good wage, the reality can be much different.
Twenty-year-old Benard Akech has too much time on his hands. Since graduating from high school two years ago, he has yet to find a job in Nairobi. So, he has decided to look for work abroad.
“I’m planning to go to Dubai for at least 10 years. Then, after 10 years, when I come back to Kenya, I’ll be much better than now," Akech said. "I’ll have my money to take me to do higher studies at university level.”
Benard has come to this recruitment office to interview for a job as a waiter at a five-star hotel in Dubai.
Hundreds of young Kenyans have passed through this office, looking for work in the Middle East. The successful ones have gone off to become physical trainers, lifeguards or flight attendants.
The owner, Lillian Zacho, says finding work is not just good for her clients, it is good for the country. “I want to help as many people, young people, as possible in this country to go out, get a better working environment, get training, and now, since our country is developing so much, most of these young people are the ones who are coming back as managers or supervisors,” she stated.
The number of jobs being created each year in Kenya has failed to keep pace with the fast growing population.
So, many are drawn to wealthy cities in the Middle East, like Dubai, which are desperate for cheap labor to staff luxury hotels and homes.
While some Kenyans have found success abroad, others say they were treated like slaves.
Matilda Mawamba has just returned from Lebanon, where she spent several months working as a domestic servant. She found the job through a recruitment agency.
She says she stood for hours at a sink, washing dishes, doing laundry for a large family seven days a week, with no time to rest or go to church.
Soon, she caught a chest infection and became too sick to work.
"When I was sick, I told my boss that I wasn’t feeling well [and to] please take me to the hospital. He refused. He bought for me Panadols - painkillers," said Mawamba. "He told me to take this Panadol and continue with the work, not to take medicine and rest."
With the help of the recruitment agency, she was able to come home. She says her life is better in Nairobi, even if she does not have much money.
But she worries about her sister, still working in Saudi Arabia. She tries to call her when she has enough phone credit. Today, she says, her sister must be too busy to answer.
After hearing too many stories of abuse, the government last year banned Kenyans from traveling abroad to work as domestic servants, though they can still go for hotel work or other jobs.
The Foreign Ministry estimates at least 100,000 Kenyans are working in the Middle East, and recruitment is showing no sign of slowing down.