Many foreign domestic workers in Saudi Arabia are forced to work in terrible conditions, often with abusive employers. However, they are trapped because of a system that ties their working rights in the country to the employer. Enter the dalalas, middlemen who prowl Facebook, offering desperate women help to flee their employers for better jobs and improved working conditions. These shadowy figures promise to help, but in reality, they are preying on the most vulnerable.
A video posted on YouTube in late 2022 shows about a dozen veiled women standing in a room together. The women are asking for help, most of them speaking Swahili. One of the women in the video says that they are domestic workers who are trapped in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia after fleeing their employers.
Some of us are very sick and can’t help themselves, we have some who have gone mad but we dont get any help. In case one of us is sick there is no help […] Some of us have been for six months without work, we have waited and we are tired.
In the time since the video appeared online, these women have been able to leave Saudi Arabia. But who are they? In Kenya, women like them are known as “kembois,” domestic workers who have left their legal employers in the Gulf States and are now undocumented.
The nickname comes from Kenyan runner Ezekiel Kemboi, winner of the 3000-metre steeplechase at four World Championships and two Olympics.
Kemboi can also be used as a verb, meaning to flee one’s employer.
Many of the African women who travel to the Gulf States to work as domestic workers find themselves caught in terrible working conditions. One of the reasons for that is the problematic “kafala” system, whereby foreign workers must be sponsored by a local employer, meaning that their legal status in the country is tied to that person. In many cases, the employer will take the workers’ passports, exerting total control over their lives.
Saudi Arabia did institute some reforms to the system in March 2021, but according to the NGO Migrants Rights, which defends the rights of workers in the Gulf States, most of the most vulnerable, including domestic workers, are still trapped in the situation.
And so, if you have an abusive employer, you have two options. Stay and finish your legal contract. Or flee and become a “kemboi”, which can often be just as dangerous.
‘If you run away, you leave without papers’
Debra Nyanchoka was a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia for two years between February 2020 and March 2022. Since returning to Kenya, she has been trying to spread the word about the people who prey on women who have left their employers.
In this video, Debra Nyanchoka, a Kenyan woman who was a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia for two years, warns women who are thinking about running away from their employer about the people who may try to prey on them.
She spoke to our team about the risks that the women who flee face:
Your passport is confiscated by your boss and all official documents. They keep them for you until you finish your contract. So if you run away, you leave without papers and cannot access any medical facility. But the end result become that you lose basic protection from the government of whichever country that you are in, because now, you are on the loose.
‘You become a hot commodity to a broker when you run away’
The women who flee their employers often hope they’ll find better working conditions somewhere else in Saudi Arabia. But the reality is often different. The domestic workers who flee often end up working for abusive middlemen, nicknamed “dalalas” in Swahili. These shadowy figures exploit migrants in vulnerable situations.
In another video posted on her YouTube channel, Debra Nyanchoka talks about these middlemen and their motivations.
Dalala is somebody who was once a house maid. When you cry online about your situation at your employers’ house, a dalala might see your message and they will contact you. They say they will save you, and you become a hot commodity to a broker when you run away. So they will help you run away first. They send you a taxi to pick you up from your workplace and bring you to your next location. At that moment, you become business to those dalalas. They will then connect you to get jobs paid under the table. And they will receive a payment for offering your services to bosses who cannot afford to labour from outside of the country. […] without kembois, the dalalas are nothing. So when someone encourages you to run away, ask yourself: why is this person is trying to make me run away fom my workplace?”
In fact, there are tons of Facebook posts by dalalas offering their services, just waiting for someone naive and desperate enough to ask for their help.
Promising security and better working conditions, the dalalas offer, in exchange for cash, to pick up a domestic worker who wants to leave her employer and bring her to a safe place, as shown in these Facebook posts.
In a comment under this post, someone talks about the terrible experience they are having after fleeing their employer:
I can’t advise someone’s child to kemboi. Saudi has changed alot, these women especially in Riyadh are beasts, you can work a whole month and madam can choose not to pay you, afterall you can’t report her. Another thing Africans are being deported in large number […]. There’s no security here […] someone who hosts you can choose to throw you anytime if you delay paying rent, lastly Kenyans out here are so wicked[…]. A times I real want to go back to my employer but I know they can slaughter me [sic].
A former domestic worker tricked, exploited and sexually abused
Our team spoke to a Kenyan woman who we are calling Mary who went to Saudi Arabia to work as domestic worker. She told us that life was very difficult with her legal employer: “Life was not easy. I could go hungry in my employer’s house. More work, less food, less sleep.”
Mary decided to post about her bad experiences in a Facebook group. A woman who saw her post said she could help, promising Mary a better life with less work and more freedom.
The woman said she would help Mary for 3,500 Saudi riyals (equivalent to 885 euros). Mary decided to take the woman up on her offer and gave the woman her address: “I shared my location with her and she sent a driver who picked me when I went to throw litter by the road”.
After picking Mary up, the driver dropped her at the home of this woman, who turned out to be a dalala.
Mary didn’t have the money to pay the woman back for the escape. So the dalala told her “to accept any job available to get some money and pay for transportation and driver. I accepted, she told me to get ready for anything. Then she came with two men. They just used me as a sex toy. That is how they recovered the money they were demanding from me.”
Mary didn’t want to tell us how she was able to escape and return to Kenya.
‘Domestic workers who want to change employers due to abuse, non-payment, or whatever reason, often have no one else to turn to’
The NGO Migrants Rights says that dalalas are often from the same country as the domestic workers they prey on. Sometimes they are former domestic workers themselves. In other cases, dalalas pretend to work for “recruitment agencies.”
Rima Kalush is the spokesperson for Migrant Rights:
They can and do exploit co-nationals. But they exist because there are needs not being met by the state. Domestic workers who want to change employers due to abuse, non-payment, or whatever reason, often have no one else to turn to – under the sponsorship system, all migrant workers can encounter difficulties in changing employers, but domestic workers face the greatest restrictions. Brokers can and do take advantage of this vulnerability, but the source of the problem is the lack of labour protections for domestic workers. In local (origin and destination country) media reporting, you will often see government officials blaming women for leaving their employers and being lured by these brokers, without really acknowledging why people have to leave in the first place.
The United Nations’ body, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), is aware of the issue. They do run programs to help migrant workers return to their home countries. However, it is often hard to access undocumented workers.
“It is difficult for the Government of Kenya to trace where the migrants are, as runaways hardly get in touch with the embassy to update on their location,” said Yvonne Ndege, the spokesperson for the IOM in East Africa.
Our team reached out to the Kenyan Embassy in Saudi Arabia about the situation of undocumented Kenyan domestic workers. However, we didn’t get a response.
This article was written in collaboration with Hillary Ingati / RFI Kiswahili.
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