Standing in an immigration queue in one of the Gulf countries, an African lady approached me asking if that was the right lane to stand in. I immediately recognised that she was a Ugandan from central, so I greeted her in Luganda. She was mesmerised, then I broke the ice by giving her a hug. She could not believe that out of all those people in the queues, she found someone who spoke a bit of her language.
She was on her way back home after having served as a domestic help for two years, happy to leave and disappointed with the hard conditions of her work. The queue was almost done and we were reaching the end of it, but I did not need more time to know what she meant by ‘hard working conditions’.
It is a known fact that the domestic help market is a very vibrant one in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf region, where for some reason every household --even if they are not financially doing well- has a helper or two. And while some employers treat their staff in a humane and dignified manner, others do not. As a result, there is a wave of unrest when a staff is abused, overworked and not paid their salaries.
A friend who lives near one of the African embassies in a Gulf country told me that she often gets a knock on her door late at night from runaway staff who have to seek shelter in a moonless night, till the Embassy reopens in the morning.
The type of employee
I have done a bit of my own investigation in this regard, and while I openly condemn any grain of abuse by employers, I also urge governments to take the initiative to protect their citizens through laws and sensitisation.
In a discussion I had with another Ugandan young lady who works in the house of a good friend, she told me that was her first employment abroad; she was well-educated but desperately needed a job, so she settled for the first offer as a house help.
She then said her first employer had many children and she was expected to serve everyone from early morning to midnight, and if she rested or hesitated, she was abused even by the children in the house. She had to runaway to the agency and then found a new position in my friend’s house. Knowing my friends who were Canadians, I told her she was very lucky that her abuse story stopped soon, some others go through cycles of bad employers.
But what hurt me most is that she had no idea what was waiting for her when she left Uganda, there was no sensitisation, not even a small one to give her a chance to think for herself, if she would or would not take this job.