Forced Migrant Labour: Modern Slavery

The 2015 Report on migrant labour by the International Labour Organisation Global Estimates on Migrant Workers (Special Focus on Migrant Domestic Workers) estimated that 150.3 million migrant workers existed. Of that number, about 11.3 million were migrant domestic workers. The Arab States alone accounted for 35.6% of all migrant workers!

A number of recruiting agencies boast of employing workers in different parts of the world but none has brought much suffering than the wave of unregulated Middle Eastern based organisations and employers where some East African migrant labourers find employment. In shops, malls, domestic settings, factories and deserts, some employers have taken advantage of the plight of job seekers. The Ministry of Gender, Labour & Social Development in Uganda which is responsible for the trade is sometimes overwhelmed by reports it receives about the mistreatment of Ugandan migrant workers in the Arab peninsula.

Slavery is not extinct. In fact, it just changed gowns. It exists in different forms today: forced labour, human trafficking, child labour, forced and early marriages, exploitation of labour and exploitation of migrant workers, ancestral ownership of slaves, prostitution, child pornography etc. Many of these workers are forced to work in fields and industries with deplorable conditions with under or no payment at all.

A new wave of slavery (contemporary slavery) has a grip on the continent: Child pornography, sex slavery on social media especially, the “dark web”. Unfortunately, the level of sophistication of the web world makes it difficult to trace culprits, leave alone find the victims before they are exploited.

The body of Alex* (not real name) will be flown back to Uganda on Saturday to be buried, albeit without some organs. Rumor has it that some of his body organs (possibly by a racket of organ traders) were severed, almost intentionally and his body stitched. While some escape and find refuge at their embassies and consulates, other migrant workers aren’t as lucky. This is one of many examples of broken promises of a “good job abroad” syndrome.

Migrant labour is casual and unskilled (of late, it is skilled and more educated graduates who are targeted), and usually moves from one settlement to another doing work on a temporary basis. Migrant labour policies face a number of challenges which when not rectified are going to develop into another international crisis, just like the new plight of migrant domestic workers in the Arabian states where many East Africans run to for domestic jobs.

Why it is difficult to monitor migrant labour which often turns into slave labour

The employment laws regulating labour matters often don’t bite. Authorities handling migrant labour, migrant domestic labour and unions are less equipped. In Uganda, few investigations commence even after a complaint has been lodged. Investigations that commence usually end midway, sometimes without a formal report.  It is therefore difficult to monitor migrant labour because:

The Labour market is flooded with inexperienced stakeholders lacking in knowledge of labour laws and employment regulations, especially concerning international employment.

Absence of bilateral agreements on migrant labour between states weakens effecting legal sanctions and other necessary action against slave labour.

The different justice systems render suits costly to institute and maintain to completion leaving offenders to carryon.

Meager resources on policing regions where there is migrant labour limit monitoring of the conditions of migrant workers.

Undocumented migrant labourers, employers and agencies involved in the migrant labour workforce and business also limit proper and accurate record keeping which in turn makes it difficult to monitor the status of migrant labour.

Unaccredited recruitment agencies involved in trafficking migrant labour without detection from authorities hinder monitoring systems.

Blacklisted companies, agencies and agents bribe their way back into the system without detection, operating underground. These connive with and rely on previous connections in the business to lure unsuspecting victims desperate for a job abroad.

A long chain of beneficiaries in the business makes it difficult to track actual traffickers, etc.

While Ugandan authorities estimate that about 25 privately licensed recruitment agencies operate within the legal mandate in the country, other unregistered agents exist. Even the Employment (Recruitment of Ugandan Migrant Workers Abroad) Regulations of 2005 do not deter unscrupulous traffickers from flourishing in the trade.

Many promise alternative little expenses on acquiring a job abroad and more incentives. Job seekers who are unaware of the predicaments involved are trapped right from their arrival at the point of destination. Many have even reported that their agents and employers connive and confiscate their travel documents.

An employer who confiscates personal and travel documentation of his/her employee entraps the latter into some form of forced slavery. A travel document in a foreign country is a pass. Once deprived, one’s freedom is restricted.

Looking at Kenya’s forced labour Situation

Like the Employment Act of Uganda (2006), the Employment Act, Cap 226 of the Laws of Kenya, 2007 provides for a number of issues concerning employment. For example, forced /compulsory labour which is a semblance to forced migrant labour is prohibited. Forced/compulsory labour, according to the law comprises a threat of any penalty, including the threat of a loss of rights or privileges.

When it comes to migrant labour, children are not spared. They form the most vulnerable bracket of the labour force targeted for cheap exploitative labour practices domestically and abroad.

Trafficking, debt bondage and serfdom, child prostitution and pornography, circumstances likely to harm the health, safety and morals of the child (section 2) are some of the practices the law describes as the “worst form of child labour”.

Kenya’s law prohibits forced labour (section 4).

 Recruiting, trafficking or using forced labour of any form is an offence many commit when it comes to migrant labour. Whether exporting labour or distributing it within the country, forced labour is prohibited. With the exception of compulsory military services, civil obligations, serving a sentence on conviction, emergency situations like disasters and calamities and communal service, forced labour is an offence. Upon conviction, the offender is ordered to pay a fine or serve a jail term or both depending on the judge’s deliberation.

Sexual harassment is another problem facing migrant labour force within and outside Kenya.

The sexual harassment policy in Kenya dictates that articulate guidelines and regulations must be outlined and displayed at work premises where the employment force is twenty (20) people and above. It is however important that for as long as an employer contracts services of an employee whether within or outside the country’s boundaries, the policy is enforced.

Other entitlements to migrant workers ought to be encouraged and given.

Annual leave, maternity leave, sick leave, housing, water, food, medical attention, etc are basic minimum conditions and entitlements of employment. The law specifically provides for a day of rest in a week. Unfortunately, like some domestic workers, few migrant workers enjoy these benefits.


Although governments of both countries decry the working conditions within which their citizens’ work, especially migrant domestic workers, the reality that jobs are scarce for the population makes their concern minimal.

It is difficult to imagine that a number of human beings as estimated by ILO are branded and indeed are “slaves” or in one form of slavery or another due to migrant labour. However, numbers do not lie. There is a slave whose right to enjoy life as a freed human is a myth. Ironically and sadly, the freed and slave co-exist in a globe where human rights are an anthem!


This article appears in our newsletter, The Deuteronomy Vol 6, Issue 2 of September 9th, 2016 under the title, Forced Migrant Labour: the new Plight of Modern Slavery

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