Expatriate Labour Services may not be panacea to unemployment

Thursday July 18 2019


By Karoli Ssemogerere

Heart-breaking stories of abused Ugandan domestic workers in the Middle East have caused alarm and consternation. Most of the abused workers are women. This concern can only escalate as Labour minister Janaat Balunzi Mukwaya announced 80,000 more vacancies in the migrant labour market in the same region.
Uganda does not publish regular unemployment statistics. UBOS publishes “lenient” statistics estimates of Ugandans employed in services, agriculture and manufacturing. The modesty of our Budget speeches read every year avoid mentioning terms like “full employment”.
The universe of “formal kyeyo” where a migrant worker goes through an employment agency registered with the Ministry of Labour is a thriving business. According to government, there are 151 agencies known to authorities in the business.
Legally, there are a number of questions that arise: First whether the relationship between the migrant workers and the agency amounts to an employment contract under which the soliciting agency can be held to account in local courts since at the time of contracting both the worker (at the time of employment) and the employer (the agency) are both domiciled in Uganda.
Such a change backed by regulations would overnight impose appropriate levels of scrutiny and force agencies to scrutinise the records of the “repeat” employers, who abuse young Ugandans that travel abroad to escape unemployment here. Regulations would require agencies to have a bond registered in a substantial amount to meet default obligations of the foreign employer under the contract.
They would secure payment of NSSF, etc., for the welfare of the worker. The Ministry of Labour would also require the agency to fund a return air ticket for workers who have to return in less than three years, after which the worker would be considered an “independent worker”.
Record keeping is another area where the “formal nkuba kyeyo” particulars should be kept at the district labour offices. This information can be shared with family members if a problem is detected in the host country.
Since these are formal workers, consular services at our foreign missions can have a point of reference to contact family members if a problem is brought to their attention.
Our missions in Dubai, Abu-Dhabi, Riyadh do not have the capacity to provide urgent care, but can perform additional scrutiny of the migrant labour counterpart agencies.
On the domestic front, an awareness campaign by government on the perils of working abroad may screen vulnerable young people. Radios carry advertisements of “salaries” to be paid without specifying that these workers have to incur living expenses, food and medical care on this salary.
It is actually a testament to skyrocketing unemployment that young people are being lured by announced wages as low as Shs800,000 or $200 per month. Whenever Public Service announces vacancies, they have to rent Namboole for initial screening.
At a screening for LDUs (community policing) that happens before elections in Kampala, 3000 applicants showed up for only 100 slots.
By using a single general entry exam for all government agencies, government can re-establish a merit system and encourage young people to attain basic qualifications and skills at a young age.
Properly mentored, one will find that a good number will consider staying in Uganda and attaining some post-secondary qualifications. It is ironical that tertiary institutions and upcountry secondary schools are suffering from declining enrolment. It is worse that the army of school dropouts right from Primary One is rising rather than falling.

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate. kssemoge@gmail.com