Every now and then, reports emerge of Ugandans being tortured in the Middle East. Majority of the victims are girls who secure domestic jobs as cleaners and housemaids. The common cases of mistreatment reported always include torture, negligence, rape, with deaths also recorded.
Reports have also been made of Ugandans committing suicide while working in the region with reasons ranging from frustration, non-payment of their labour and torture.
While the exact number of Ugandans working legally and illegally in the Middle East is not known, unconfirmed reports put the number at about 65,000.
Butambala County MP Muwanga Kivumbi mid this week raised a concern about how Ugandans are living and working under harsh conditions in the Middle East. He said some Ugandans are subjected to modern day slavery by being sold to human traffickers.
“During our recent visit to Dubai and Abu Dhabi (both in UAE) we learnt that 15 Ugandans had committed suicide. This is because of the frustrations that they go through while working there,” Mr Kivumbi said.
In October last year, two MPs, David Abala (Ngora County) and Mr Mwine Mpaka (Western Youth), reported that out of the 48 deaths of Ugandans in UAE in 2017, a total of 35 were as a result of committing suicide.
What is government doing?
Government through the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development regulates the process through which Ugandans are recruited and taken to the Middle East.
Early this year, the ministry released a list of 88 companies that have been approved to recruit and export labour.
“The current stand is that no Ugandan will be taken out of the country by the accredited companies before signing the work contract with the employer,” Ms Janat Mukwaya, the Gender minister, said early this year.
Mr Milton Turyansiima, the assistant commissioner for labour services in the same ministry, told this newspaper that for reasons related to mistreatment of Ugandans, there is no arrangement to export labour to Oman.
Despite the regulatory process, the government acknowledges that there are many Ugandans who sneak out of the country and find their way to the Middle East.
Mr Turyansiima explains that for those that go through genuine companies, their issues or complaints are always handled by the embassy in Abu Dhabi for the case of UAE and the Embassy in Riyadh for the case of Saudi Arabia.
“In the streamlined process, the labour exporting companies are responsible for the welfare and safety of the people they recruit. It is the company that is responsible to ensure that any Ugandan who faces torture or any other life-threatening problems while there returns home safely. The embassies are also there to help negotiate with the governments in those countries to ensure that our people are safe under good working environment,” Mr Turyansiima said recently.
Shadow minister for Gender, Ms Lucy Akello (Amuru Woman MP), says majority of Ugandans who face these troubles are female workers who are either subjected to sex slavery or deployed to unfamiliar environments on arrival despite the original plan being a good job.
The legislator suggests that government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should recruit labour attachés who will be responsible for monitoring of the working conditions for the Ugandans.
“Before continuing with these contracts, our embassies should be empowered by government deploying labour attaches whose main role is to monitor and evaluate the conditions of work for our people,” she says.
Taking the case of Oman where almost every Ugandan is recruited illegally, majority are housemaids whose visa and air tickets are sponsored by the employers. The Omani labour laws provide that the person recruiting a foreigner shall be responsible for those requirements.
Mr Moses Binoga, the coordinator of the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, says there are no formal contracts signed under the supervision of the Omani government.
“It is on arrival that the sponsor (employer) after picking a girl from the airport, drives her to the house where a contract is signed between them without anyone witnessing. What is also funny is that their labour court recognises such form of contract and for breach, the girl will be subjected to trial,” Mr Binoga said.
One of the housemaids who recently returned to Uganda is Jane Obote. She says the oppression and frustration in those houses is unbearable. She was once burnt with hot milk by her employer’s wife and there was no one she could run to since she was trafficked.
What is being done to avert this problem?
The executive director of the Uganda Association for External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA), Ms Enid Nambuya, says with the government regulating the recruitment process, the companies have been able to monitor their clients and are able to raise issues with the partner companies in the Middle East.
Ms Nambuya suggests that Ugandans must always first seek information from them and government before embarking on the trip to the Middle East because of the danger faced by those not represented by recruitment agencies.
While embarking on a journey to the Middle East seems a risky affair, many unemployed Ugandans, especially the youth, are left with a difficult option of choosing between a rock and a hard place.
It remains to be seen if government’s recent efforts to improve the lives of Ugandans in the region will help reduce the cases of torture, negligence, rape and death.