Over the last two years, 89 Kenyans – more than half of them female domestic workers – have died in the Gulf nation, according to Kenya’s foreign ministry.
In 2019, three deaths have been recorded.
The cause of death given by Saudi authorities are cardiac arrest, natural death or suicide. But many families are unconvinced, and rights groups think the deaths may be linked to a surge in abuse against domestic workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We believe they were killed,” said Fredrick Gaya, a social activist, who has petitioned the Kenyan parliament on behalf of more than 30 families and mistreated migrant workers.
“These women were suffering in the days before they died … they were being tortured by their employers. Some were burned with hot water or had dogs set on them. It’s not possible they all died of cardiac arrest or natural causes.”
One such domestic worker was Alice Awor Tindo who had been working in Saudi Arabia for three months when friends and relatives back home in Kenya began receiving distressed calls and WhatsApp messages.
The 30-year-old told them her employer had confiscated her passport and refused to pay her. She had been banned from having a phone, so had to hide hers, and wanted to switch to a different household.
“I am not in a good condition,” the single mother wrote in a message in the Kikuyu language, dated June 9, 2020, shown to the Thomson Reuters Foundation by her family.
“I told my employer that I want to change jobs, but she told me that I will only leave this place when I am dead.”
Four days later, Tindo’s body was found lying in her bedroom by her employer in Saudi’s Najran province.
A Saudi police report given to her family concluded that she had died in her sleep, the cause declared as “normal death”.
But her father, John Awor Tindo, disputes this.
“Alice was a healthy young woman,” said the 56-year-old farmer, standing by his daughter’s unmarked grave on a hillside cemetery near their home in the western town of Elburgon.
“It’s very mysterious. No one can just die in their sleep like that for no reason. There must be a cause. There should have been some follow-up.”
The Tindo family are among a growing number of bereaved Kenyan families sounding the alarm over the sudden deaths of female relatives working in Saudi Arabia.
Officials in neighbouring Uganda have also voiced concern about the deaths of its nationals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations in recent months.
Three Saudi government ministries and the embassy in Nairobi did not respond to requests for comment.
Saudi Arabia relies on millions of low-paid foreign workers to perform domestic jobs from house maids, care-givers and nannies to drivers and security guards.
More than 30% of the oil-rich kingdom’s population of 35 million are migrants, many from Asian and African countries.
But Saudi Arabia – along with other Gulf nations such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman – has long faced criticism from rights groups for a sponsorship system that leaves migrant workers open to abuse and exploitation.
Under the “kafala” system, a foreign domestic worker’s legal status is tied to their employer and they cannot change jobs or leave the country without permission.
This has led to widespread abuses of migrant workers – from passport confiscation, unpaid wages and excessive work hours, to beatings and even rape by male members of the household.
Attracted by the promise of well-paid work and a chance to escape joblessness at home, more than 100,000 Kenyans work in Saudi Arabia – sending home millions of dollars every year, government and central bank data shows.
In 2020, remittances from the Gulf nation totalled more than US$120 million – up 50% from the previous year.
Drawn from poor communities in small towns and villages, maids are recruited by local agencies offering two-year contracts with a monthly wage of about 25,000 Kenyan Shillings (US$220)- more than three times what they would earn in Kenya.
For many women, it is a rare opportunity to save their earnings and buy land, build a house or start a small business as well as send money home. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)