Kampala. On April 19, the bruised body of Kezia Nalwanga, who had allegedly been beaten and killed by strangulation in Oman, was laid to rest at her ancestral home in Kikandwa, Wakiso District. She had reportedly been killed by her former employers.
Prior to that, the body of Joanna Demafelis arrived in the Philippines from Kuwait on February 16 last year, days after her corpse was found stuffed in a freezer, allegedly by her employers, a Lebanese man and Syrian woman, who are suspected to have killed her.
The killings are part of an orgy of torture that some employers in member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council have been meting out to the more than 2.5 million domestic workers, the majority of whom are from Africa and Asia.
There are countless tales of brutality. One maid was found with 13 nails and 11 needles hammered into her body by her employers, another had her right arm cut off for complaining about the conditions under which she was working.
Others have had tales of physical beatings, being doused with boiling water, being thrown out of high rise buildings, sexual abuse and nonpayment of their wages and working for very long hours without any days off.
The tales are so gory that one would think we are back to the slave trade era when slaves suffered similar fates in the Whites-owned cotton, rice and sugarcane plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean.
Despite the clear and present danger awaiting them, hundreds of people, mostly youth, some of them university graduates, still throng the offices of the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development and offices of the many labour recruitment agencies operating under the umbrella organisation, the Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA), for jobs abroad.
Why the scramble
The shadow minister for Gender, Labour and Social Development, who is also the Member of Parliament for Aruu North County, Ms Lucy Aciro, said it is down to despair.
“That will continue for as long as government cannot move to fix unemployment. We were recently on board the same plane with some of the girls and some of them did not know how to communicate in English or where they were going. One had a university degree, but told me she was willing to take any job for as little as Shs700,000,” the legislator said.
It would, however, appear that unemployment and underemployment are not the only factors fueling the scramble for flights to the Gulf States. The allure of better pay, even if they quit their professions in Uganda and took up menial jobs out there, is very much at the centre of that desire.
The case of Kezia Nalwanga is instructive in that regard. She quit her job as a Kindergarten teacher at Jovia Primary School in Nansana near Kampala, with a dream of making big money as a housemaid in Oman.
Drastic differences in what a person would earn in Uganda as opposed to what they would earn out there is a factor.
Domestic workers in Uganda who earn Shs140,000 a month are considered extremely lucky, yet according to information from UAERA, their counterparts in Jordan earn between $225 (Shs8.5m) and $300 (Shs1.2m), while those in Saudi Arabia earn between $225 and $500 (Shs1.9m) per month.
They are also better paid than most primary and post-primary teachers, security officers and sections of the medical personnel employed by the Public Service.
The most recent salary structure from the Ministry of Public Service puts the salary of an enrolled nurse or midwife, for example, at Shs613,180; that of the highest paid Primary School teacher at Shs919,222 and that of a senior administrative officer at Shs1,131,209, which are far below that a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia earns.
Whereas security guards in Uganda earn as little as Shs150,000, their counterparts working in Afghanistan or Iraq earn between $500 (Shs1,9m) and $1000 (Shs3.7m). This means some of the guards earn more than a doctor in Uganda, who earns Shs3 million per month.
It is not clear when the Gulf States became a desired destination for our unemployed and under employed people.
“Our records for the period prior to 2016 are not very clear on how many are there and who does what, but we have developed a data base for 2016 up to now.
During that period, Uganda has 31,859 migrant workers to those states,” says the commissioner of employment services at the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, Mr Lawrence Egulu.
The number of Ugandans working in the Middle East has grown steadily each year, peaking at 21,629 in 2018, according to official figures.
We could not access all the data for all the years from the ministry of Labour, but the figures we accessed for the years 2016, 2017 and 2018 add up to 31,859. Since the export of labour to these countries has been on for about a decade, with some peak years, official estimates are that the number of Ugandans doing odd jobs in these countries hovers around 100,000.
The official figures, however, do not cater for those who are trafficked into these countries, and there have been several reports of such acts.
However, UAERA puts the numbers way above what the ministry has.
“Currently, we have more than 140,000 Ugandans working in the Middle East,” says Mr Ronnie Mukundane, the communications officer at UAERA.
If that is the number of people in the Gulf States, it is clear that at no time in the history of Uganda has there been such a big number of people out in search of jobs and money, a situation which Ms Aciro says was always inevitable.
“You know how difficult it is for people in this country to get jobs. There are tribes that can access jobs more easily. The rest have to fend for themselves, especially at a time when government is not doing enough to ensure that jobs are created to match the population growth and number of graduates leaving institutions of higher learning,” she argues.
The exodus has sparked off debate on what effect it might have on the development of Uganda.
In his book titled, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney argues that Europe’s raids on Africa to get slaves to work in their agricultural fields stripped Africa of manpower at a time when human labour was the most important factor of production, and in so doing, hampered its growth.
“The massive loss to the African labour force was made more critical because it was composed of able-bodied young men and young women. Slave buyers preferred their victims between the ages of 15 and 35, and preferably in the early 20s,” he wrote.
Mr Mukundane, however, argues that the scenarios are different.
Whereas it is true that able-bodied young people are leaving Uganda, unlike the slaves, they send something back to Uganda.
“Out of the $1.4b (about Shs1 trillion) that Uganda receives in remittances from all over the world, those migrant workers in the Middle East countries remit slightly over $500m (about Shs1.9 trillion), which is quite substantial. We are getting something in return,” he says.
Spread of workers in the Middle East
Duty stations. Much as Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA) alludes to a huge number of Ugandans working in the Gulf States, it does not have details of where exactly they are positioned or what they do. Mr Mukundane is for now focused on the regulation of domestic workers. He says Uganda has 4,500 domestic workers in Jordan and about 10,500 in Saudi Arabia.
The numbers. The ministry, on its part, indicates that the 31,859 Ugandans that it can speak for are spread out in eight countries.
“The biggest number, 16,002 is located in Saudi Arabia with which Uganda has a bilateral labour agreement.
The second biggest number, 4,154 is located in Jordan, which also has a bilateral labour agreement with Uganda.
The others, 3,478 are located in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), 3,188 in Iraq, 2,081 in Qatar, 1,036 in Afghanistan, 1,030 in Somalia and 890 in Bahrain,” Mr Egulu said.
It should, however, be noted that Uganda has no bilateral labour agreements with Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain and Somalia.
Designations. The majority of those people work as housemaids and security guards. As of December last year, there were 17,369 housemaids, 7,603 security guards, 1,532 cleaners, 1,237 cleaners and 454 labourers.
Ugandans working as security guards are located in six countries, with 3,035 located in Iraq, 1355 in Qatar, 959 in Afghanistan, 823 in Bahrain, 730 in Somalia and 701 in the United Arab Emirates.
There are also others working as masons, steel fixers, general helpers, technicians, supervisors, and dog handlers. Of the entire batch of 31,859, there are only 133 administrators, 44 supervisors, 137 merchandizers and 247 salesmen, the bulk of whom are stationed in the United Arab Emirates.
Spread of workers in the Middle East
A workers’ remittances report published by Bank of Uganda in 2006 indicates that remittances attributed to migrant workers’ increased from $175.4m (about Shs656b) in 1996 to $340.5m (about Shs1.3 trillion) in 2005. The figures made a case for putting in place a mechanism for regulation through which unemployed and underemployed Ugandans could be legally exported.
Consequently, by way of Statutory Instrument 62 of 2005, an external employment unit was created in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. The unit is charged with regulating private recruitment agencies and facilitating access to employment opportunities.
Despite the fact that UAERA, which comprises licensed employment agencies, has been doing regulation every now and then, the public gets an unfortunate stories such as that of Kezia Nalwanga. What UAERA regulates is largely based on bilateral labour agreements developed in line with specified standards defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
However, Uganda does not have agreements with most of those countries. Agreements which were meant to be signed with Qatar three years ago and with United Arab Emirates (UAE) last month never materialised. This means Ugandans taken there are largely on their own and at the mercy of those who take them there.
“Most jobs in UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait are secured through employment agencies based in Dubai, UAE. We never have a way of monitoring them,” Mr Mukundane says.
Another challenge is the labour laws in some of those countries. One such law is the Kafala (visa sponsorship) system in countries like Oman, which ties migrant workers to their employers and bars them from switching jobs or leaving without their employers’ agreement. Often times, the sponsors take away the workers’ passports.
Uganda’s Ambassador to the UAE, Mr Zaake Kibeedi, is, however, optimistic that things will turn around for the better.
“Some of those countries where the Kafala system is in place are working on reviewing them so that workers are free. We are also optimistic that the bilateral agreements will be signed with most of those countries. That should give us leeway to intervene on behalf of the workers whenever the need will arise,” he said.
Working population. According to the statistical abstract 2018 published by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, Uganda had a working population of 15 million people in 2016/2017, up from 14 million in 2012/2013. The portion of the working females was 51 per cent.
Unemployment. However, the rate of unemployment, according www.tradingeconomics.com, increased to 2.10 per cent in 2017 from 2 per cent in 2016. The unemployment rate averaged 2.38 per cent from 1991 until 2017, reaching an all-time high of 3.50 per cent in 2002 and a record low of 0.94 per cent in 1991.
Youth unemployment, the number of youth actively looking for a job as a percentage of the labour force, in a country where more than 75 per cent of the population is below 30, stands at 13.3 per cent, the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa.