Kampala. The desperate search for casual jobs abroad has continued to haunt jobless Ugandans particularly women who are trafficked to the Middle East Arab countries by unscrupulous agents to work as domestic servants. The women are later subjected to inhuman treatment, including sexual abuse.
The Ministry of Labour, Gender and Social Development has tried to streamline procedures for employment abroad by liaising with labour exporting companies to ensure the job seekers’ rights not violated at their work stations away from home.
Most Ugandans, who undertake the established government procedure, have enjoyed their employment abroad and improved their livelihoods back home.
However, their counterparts who choose to seek employment by informal and covert process through human trafficking agents have suffered some of the worst and most heinous forms of slavery and human abuses that can possibly ever happen to mankind in modern day.
Six Ugandan women, working as housemaids in different towns of the Middle East country of Oman, revealed to Daily Monitor that have been confined by their employment agents in a private facility for several months undergoing torment.
The women communicated their ordeal through sources in the Omani capital, Muscat, saying they are suffering diverse illnesses.
They said they decided to return to their agent’s office in the town of Ibra after their employers refused to take them to hospital for medication.
In an electronic audio message from Muscat sent to Daily Monitor, the woman aged between 20 and 40, said they are locked up in an office on Ibra-Muscat road where they get one meal a day.
Ibra is the second largest city in the Ash Sharqiyah Region of Oman, about 170km from Muscat and has a population of about 55,000.
“After leaving the houses of our sponsors [employers], because we were not treated when we fell sick, the agents here decided to lock us in one room where we are given one meal per day. We cannot go out and we only accessed someone’s phone to record this audio,” one of the women laments in the audio recording.
Their families here said the six women travelled to Oman between June 2017 and January 2018 for employment as domestic workers.
One of them identified as Fatuma Nakafeero, 40, a resident of Busega on the outskirts of Kampala, went to Oman last October, leaving behind six children. She decided to go to Oman after failing to pay school fees for her children because their father abandoned her.
The other women are: Ms Aisha Nantongo, 23, from Iganga District; Ms Nuru Ndijja, 29, from Maganjo in Kawempe Division in Kampala, Ms Maria Kisakye, 28, from Bwebajja on Entebbe Road, Ms Hallima Najjemba from Lugoba in Kawempe and Ms Hafuswa Mugisha from Kisaasi, a Kampala suburb.
According to the women, they were trafficked out of the country through Kenya with assistance of agents both in Kampala and Nairobi. The particulars of their agents are withheld for now but will be exposed at some point.
“After returning to office, the sponsors (employers) took us to the labour court where were asked to pay them money with each supposed to pay money as compensation for the remaining time on our different contracts. After failing, the office people here decided to lock us up in one room and our conditions are becoming worse by the day,” said one of the women in the audio clips.
Ms Nantongo was the first to be locked up in December last year followed by Ms Nakafeero, Kisakye and Ms Ndijja and Mugisha Ms Najjemba is the latest, confined about three weeks ago.
According to Ms Maria Muyanja, the step-mother of Ms Kisakye, her daughter left for Oman in January this year after her husband abandoned her.
She left behind a three-year-old baby who Ms Muyanja is taking care of. “She has been telling me she was asked to pay for her own air ticket to be allowed to return home. I can’t afford because since she left, she has only sent home Shs490,000 of which I was instructed to deposit Shs400,000 in the bank and used the rest to cater for her baby,” Ms Muyanja said.
She said Ms Kisakye insisted on going to Oman despite warnings about the dangers that trafficked domestic workers suffer in Oman and other Middle East states. Ms Muyanja said she did not see the local agents who connected Ms Kisakye to the job.
Mr Farouk Kayondo, a relative of Ms Nuru Ndijja of Maganjo, said she had been sending him messages on WhatsApp before reporting early this month that their phones had been confiscated and were only being helped by a good Samaritan in office to communicate home briefly.
Ms Nasabu Namuwoya, Ms Nantongo’s mother, said the family is scared their daughter who left last June may not return since they have failed to raise money for the air ticket.
All the family members we talked to said they had not reported the ordeal of their relatives in Oman to the government.
However, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Labour, Mr Pius Bigirimana, said it is hard for the ministry to rescue the women out of Oman because “they are not known”.
Mr Bigirimana said the ministry only helps those sought employment abroad through registered companies.
“My ministry cannot help those people because we do not know them in our records since they go to Oman illegally. We only help those we know because the local companies that took them abroad are responsible for the client’s return in case of a problem,” Mr Birimana said.
The coordinator of Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Mr Moses Binoga, said the women’s families should first report to his office so that he can write a report to Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Interpol for intervention.
However, Mr Binoga said it would be hard to locate people who were trafficked to Oman unless their families provide particulars of their location and details of the local agents who took them abroad.
“Let the families come and report because I base on their information to report to Ministry of Foreign affairs and Interpol who later establish contact with government in Muscat through our embassy in Saudi Arabia which supervises Oman,” he said.
“Government always helps on air tickets after families confirm to have compensated the employers because the laws of Oman require that contracts are compensated if someone decided to leave midway,” Mr Binoga added.
The Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Patrick Mugoya, advised those suffering from mistreatment in Oman to report to Ugandan embassies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabi and Abu Dhabi, UEA to bring their plight to the attention of government.
Daily Monitor has learnt there are many Ugandan workers facing untold suffering from their employers alias “sponsors” in some of the Arab countries. In some cases, the sponsors withhold their pay or accommodate them in isolated buildings which exposes them to rape and other sexual violence.
An investigation by this newspaper has established that currently there are about 20,000 Ugandans working in the Gulf country of Oman. It is in this country that Ugandans, especially women working as housemaids are going through the worst conditions which include torture, abuse and starvation.
How women are smuggled
The Assistant Commissioner for Employment Services in the Ministry of Labour, Mr Milton Turyasiima, said government does not export workers to Oman because those who have gone there on their own have been subjected to inhuman conditions.
“We don’t recommend people to go to Oman because of the stories we hear from those suffering there and those who return,” Mr Turyasiima said.
He said people working in Oman are trafficked because no registered labour exporting company is allowed to find employment for Ugandans in Muscat.
Most Ugandans in Omani work in the capital Muscat and other major towns Nizwa, Al Jazer, Al Madina A’Zarqa, Rustaq, Ruwi , Saham, Shinas, Saiq, Salalah, Samail and Sohar among others.
Mr Binoga described the situation of Ugandan workers in Omani as “modern day slavery”.
He cited a new report on human trafficking in 2017, which is pending release, that shows 69 of 249 cases of human trafficking from Uganda were reported in Oman.
“Most of those working in Oman are trafficked and are now victims of modern day slavery. The cases of human trafficking in Oman are increasing every year and remember that we only register those that are reported to us. Most of the cases are reported when victims manage to return home or by relatives who are seeking help to have them back,” Mr Binoga said.
He said Oman has become a destination for many jobless Ugandans because jobs there are easy to get and the country’s laws allow importation of cheap labour from Africa.
One of the victims is Ms Sidora (not her real name) who travelled to Oman in July 2017. The 21-year-old woman has since worked in different houses following cases of torture and attempts of rape by some of her bosses code-named sponsors.
Ms Sidora told Daily Monitor through an audio conversation on WhatsApp at her workplace in Muscat, that she fears to mention names and particulars of Ugandan agents who lured her to Oman because they have been threatening her life if she exposed them.
She has been tortured three times and on one occasion, she was hospitalised. She said she has also survived rape several times.
“One day while at the Immigration Offices in Kampala to follow-up on my passport, a man whom I will not name came to me and asked whether I needed to go abroad to work. He promised that he would work on every detail of my travel. I accepted and paid this man Shs1m. He asked me to meet him at a hotel in Kampala after two weeks to know about the travel arrangements” Ms Sidora said.
Since a work visa for Oman would not be obtainable in Uganda, she was advised to travel to Nairobi. She said she passed through Malaba border to Nairobi for a visa and subsequent flight to Muscat, Oman.
She was picked at the airport in Omani by her sponsor (employer) who drove her to his house without registering her in any immigration or labour office.
Ms Sidora says she did not stay a month in this house because she was tortured and the only help her agent in Uganda would provide was to find another house to relocate her.
Ms Sidora is not alone. There are many other Ugandans who have been tricked into “slavery” in Oman.
Two weeks ago, Mr Charles Dickens Obote, a resident of Kibuli in Kampala, said he regrets allowing his wife Ms Jane Acam to travel to Oman for work.
The couple has been married for five years and Obote has endured loneliness for one year after allowing his wife to go to Oman for a job.
However, the expectations were dampened when his wife called home after one month, saying she had been burnt with an iron box by the wife of her boss.
Mr Obote said his wife was linked to Oman by a friend at an office in Nansana, Wakiso. However, he did not visit the office personally and cannot locate it or tell its name.
It is the same woman in the Nansana office who linked Ms Acam to Ms Teopista Nakachwa, a Ugandan lady staying in the United Arab Emirates who asked her to pay Shs700,000 to find for her a job in Dubai.
However, upon travelling by road to the Kenyan capital Nairobi, her host Ms Rebecca Chebeti gave her a visa for Oman.
“At this point, Jane and I wanted to pull out of the deal because the primary destination was Dubai and how would she be given a visa for Oman? Chebeti’s contacts at Busia border had also assured Jane that she was going to Dubai after helping her to have her passport stamped,” Mr Obote said.
Ms Acam was later introduced to a man called Abdu, a Kenyan whose work is to traffic people to Oman when they reach Nairobi. Abdu reportedly used his connections at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to force Acam board a plane to the Omani city of Nizwa.
When this newspaper caught up with Ms Acam on WhatsApp, she had gone to the Omani Labour Court a number of times seeking to be returned home.
But the court asked her to compensate her employer an equivalent of Shs15m for the remaining part of her two-year contract. Besides, she would pay for an air ticket since the return ticket she used going to Oman was confiscated by the sponsor.
Ms Acam was earning a paltry 70 Riyal (Oman currency) which is about Shs600,000. She has since returned to Kampala after assistance by Omani police but all her belongings and money were confiscated by her employer and the office that received her on arrival in Nizwa.
One morning, Ms Nambuya (not real name) was with her father at Mbale regional Immigration offices seeking information on getting a passport.
She was approached by a man called Ismail Masaba who asked whether she needed a job abroad and said he would help.
“I had told my parents that I wanted to leave the job I was doing with Riham in Mbale to go abroad for better pay. My father helped me to access passport application forms. When we took them back to the immigration offices, Masaba approached us and said he would help us obtain the passport in a few days,” Ms Nambuya narrated.
She said her parents paid money to Masaba who claimed it was for bribing immigration officials to expedite processing of the passport.
She got the passport and was later linked to a Kenyan called Evans who processed for her a visa at the Oman embassy in Nairobi.
“Two weeks after getting the passport, Masaba told me that Evans had secured a visa and he gave me a contact of another Kenyan who helped me cross the border at Busia without passing through the immigration. I reached Nairobi by bus that I boarded a few kilometres from the Busia border with the help of Evans who told me I would earn about Shs1m per month in Omani. But upon being picked at the airport, the sponsor told me I would earn 70 Riyal (about Shs600,000),” she said.
Nambuya says Masaba has been abusive and commands her sponsors to torture her whenever she complains of mistreatment.
She wants to return home but she is stranded because her return air ticket was confiscated by the employer. She is also not allowed to leave home because Masaba has warned each of the three households where she has worked so far that she would cause trouble if she accessed Omani police.
Daily Monitor’s efforts to contact Mr Abdu, Mr Evans, Ms Chebeti and Mr Masaba were futile because the telephone numbers provided by their victims were either switched off or calls to them went unanswered.
Daily Monitor also learnt they keep changing contacts every time there is a new complaint.
Human rights issues
A human rights lawyer, Mr Ladislus Rwakafuzi said with many Ugandans in Oman complaining of human rights violations by their employers, there is need for the government to establish an embassy in Muscat or appoint a consular to hear their complaints.
Mr Rwakafuzi said it is hard for the government of Uganda to ban export of labour to a particular country in the Middle East but with consular services, everyone would be registered and be accessed in case of any danger.
Dr Livingstone Ssewanyana, the Executive Director for Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), faulted government for not sensitising Ugandans about the dangers of seeking jobs abroad through illegal means.
“When people are desperate, they will do anything to survive. Issues of torture and death of Ugandans working in Oman have been there overtime but what will the unemployed youth do when someone woes him or her to go for employment there. There is need for clear guidelines,” Dr Ssewanyana said.
Uganda has embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of the immediate neighbours of Oman. Government has formalised agreements for exportation of labour to these two countries and the Labour ministry has on several occasions flagged off Ugandans heading for work there.
Dialogue: Mr Milton Turyansiima, assistant commissioner for employment services at ministry of Labour, said the ministry is engaged in dialogue with their Kenyan counterparts to find a way of stopping trafficking of Ugandans to Oman through Nairobi.
Challenge: However, he noted the challenge is stopping Ugandans from travelling to Kenya because of the free movement of goods and people under the East African Community policies. “It is hard to stop Ugandans from travelling to Kenya because of free movement and some of them go in disguise of business trips or visiting friends and relatives in Nairobi. So we cannot blame Kenya but we are in negotiations with them to ensure authorities can find a way of stopping travel of Ugandans to Oman if they don’t have pre-signed contracts approved by my ministry,” Mr Turyasiima said.
Besides, Mr Binoga said despite Uganda and Oman not having diplomatic ties, the Arab country has continued to import workers from here illegally because its laws provide for importation of cheap labour.
Different system: “In Oman, the visa system is different, especially for importation of cheap labour. The workers are owned by the employers because they are the ones that apply for visas and their government is not responsible for what happens between an employer and the employee,” Mr Binoga said. “However, we have always helped to retrieve suffering Ugandans through Foreign Affairs which gets in touch with Omani authorities through Interpol and some have returned,” he added.
Affected families speak out
Charles Dickens Obote, husband of a victim: “Up to now, I still blame myself as a man for making that decision to allow my wife travel to Oman because of work. I have been restless ever since she sent pictures of her wounds and our efforts to make her return home have not yielded fruit as she continues to be moved from house to house amidst torture.”
Nasabu Namuwoya, mother of one of the women: “Aisha has been crying out to us asking for an air ticket but we cannot raise Shs2m to purchase it. She was trading in second hand closes which she abandoned when she left for Oman. She tried to speak to us three days ago but we did not hear anything since she was panicking.”
Mr Farouk Kayondo, a relative of a victim: “When she had just left for Oman, my cousin Ndijja sent me the contact of her agents here in Uganda but ever since she got problems, their phones have been switched off. We have failed to raise money and there is no way we can get in touch with the people holding her since their numbers are not known.”