What you need to know:
- Uganda Bureau of Statistics and International Labour Organization (ILO) indicate that young Ugandan women-aged between 15-29 years- face a number of hurdles in the labour market, from higher unemployment rates to lower wages.
- Many young women like Namazzi who try to escape unemployment and poverty at home, often end up as domestic workers in the Middle East where over the years, there has been systematic documentation of cases of exploitation, physical and/or sexual abuse, and even fatalities.
- In August this year, Uganda said it was to review the agreements with a number of countries, particularly in the Middle East, as cases of abuse of migrant workers continue to rise.
In 2019, Milly Namazi, like thousands of other young Ugandans who have sought greener pastures abroad, was excited to leave Uganda after securing a job as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia.
The 26-year-old mother of two had just separated from the father of her kids when she got the job through a labour export company, Dreams Connect Company Limited based in Kibuli, Kampala, with hopes that she would be able take care of her ageing parents as well as meet all her kids’ basic needs.
Namazzi’s family says her contract expired four months ago and that’s when she was expected to return to her parents at Kagezi village, Kimaanya-Kabonera division in Masaka City in central Uganda.
“We were surprised to hear that her boss in Saudi Arabia had refused to release her on grounds that they wanted to extend her contract,” Namazzi’s young sister, Oliver Najjuuko explains.
Months before her contract expired, Namazzi had reportedly phoned her parents to complain about her boss who had allegedly started mistreating her.
“She just asked us to pray for her saying her life seemed to be in danger,” Najjuuko adds.
Early this month, Najjuuko says she received a text message from Namazzi’s phone indicating that she (Namazzi) had been flown to Egypt by her boss from Saudi Arabia with no clear explanation.
Days later, Namazzi sent three audio recordings to Najjuuko “saying she had been sold to someone in Egypt” and that her life was in serious danger.
“Dear Oliver, just know that I’m in hiding now. I see men with a dog looking for me. This might be my last message to you. You may never hear or see me in Uganda again. After this audio, I’m going to switch off my phone but please, always pray for me; it seems I’m dying today,” Namazzi is heard telling her sister in the audio recordings she sent via WhatsApp on December 5, 2021.
That day, Najjuuko says she sent several WhatsApp texts to her sister but got no reply.
Later in the night, she received a phone call from one of Namazzi’s friends in Saudi Arabia informing her that she (Namazzi) was involved in a motor accident.
“We have evidence that my sister was killed by her boss and we shall not accept any lies that she was knocked dead. She always texted us crying and complaining about how her boss was mistreating her. Even the day she died, there’s evidence that she was killed,” a sobbing Najjuuko narrates.
According to Ms Najjuuko, Namazzi’s friend in Saudi Arabia said her sister’s body was in a hospital mortuary in Egypt.
“She then gave me a telephone number of a person she said was a police officer who had contacted her about my sister’s death in Egypt. When I dialled the number, the person said we needed to make arrangements to repatriate my sister’s body,” Najjuuko adds.
With so many questions lingering in their heads, Najjuuko says after receiving news about her sister’s passing, she and other relatives travelled from Masaka to Kampala to get answers from the labour firm that was responsible for Namazzi’s travel to Saudi Arabia.
“They told us that they were no longer responsible for Namazzi since her contract had expired four months before her death. They said we should ask the government to follow up and not their company,” Ms Najjuuko explains.
Namazzi’s elderly mother, Ms Joyce Nassozi, said her daughter was everything in their lives.
“I do not know what we are going to do now because she has been our family’s bread winner. We had high hopes in her because before she secured that job, we were so badly off. We appeal to government to help return my daughter’s body,” Ms Nassozi said.
Her father, Mr Joseph Walugembe, says Namazzi had just started constructing for them a better house.
“She was the one paying the builders now how will I handle all that? She has left us two kids who are very young. How shall we manage to take care of their education when their father no longer cares for them? At least we pray that her body is brought back home for a proper send off,” Mr Walugembe says with a raspy voice.
When contacted, Dreams Connect Company Limited manager, Mr Hassan Mulinde, told this reporter they are doing everything possible to see that Namazzi’s body is repatriated.
He also refuted claims that the company had done nothing to help Namazzi’s family.
"It's true that Namazzi died in Egypt and we have been in touch with the family and Ministry of Labour. There are procedures we have to follow and both the Ministry of labour and foreign affairs are aware. We are making arrangements to see how the body is returned," Mr Mulinde said.
He however, accused Namazzi’s family of being impatient despite explaining to them that the process of repatriating the body is longer than they expected.
"We have received claims from the family that we refused to sign a letter okaying repatriation of the body, it’s not true because we are still in engagements with the line ministries and the Ugandan embassy in Egypt. It’s not as easy as they think because our company took her to Saudi Arabia but she died in Egypt," Mr Mulinde added.
However, Mr Abdallah Kayonde from Migrant worker’s voice slammed the labour export mangers for allegedly not following up when Namazzi’s contract expired.
“We are going to follow up with this until justice is served,” Mr Kayonde vowed.
Uganda Bureau of Statistics and International Labour Organization (ILO) indicate that young Ugandan women-aged between 15-29 years- face a number of hurdles in the labour market, from higher unemployment rates to lower wages. As a result, many young women like Namazzi who try to escape unemployment and poverty at home, often end up as domestic workers in the Middle East where over the years, there has been systematic documentation of cases of exploitation, physical and/or sexual abuse, and even fatalities.
In late 2015, Saudi Arabia and Uganda signed a deal which could have provided as many as two million jobs for Ugandans in the oil-rich Gulf nation according to the Gulf Africa Review. But the deal was terminated in January 2016 after Parliament banned the transit of migrant workers to Saudi Arabia following shocking revelations of abuse and torture.
An inter-ministerial task force was formed to tackle the abuse and exploitation of Ugandan migrant domestic workers immediately after the issuing of the ban, but in May 2017, the ban was reversed following the signing of bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
However, in August this year, Uganda said it was to review the agreements with a number of countries, particularly in the Middle East, as cases of abuse of migrant workers continue to rise.
While meeting Mr Sanusi Tejan Savage, the Chief of Mission for the UN Agency on Migration in Uganda in Kampala on August 17, 2021, Ms Betty Amongi, the minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development, said the continued reports of maltreatment of migrant workers, even in countries where bilateral labour agreements exist, was of concern to Uganda.
She said her ministry had proposed a review of these agreements to bridge the loopholes.
Uganda currently has bilateral labour management agreements with Saudi Arabia, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The agreements are meant to foster the overall safety and wellbeing of Ugandan migrant workers.
Ms Amongi said the online External Employment Information System would also be scaled up to allow the logging in of complaints and tracking the responses. Currently, the system only has options for registered labour export companies to log in.
"This will greatly help us in tracing the complaints logged in and what action or inaction was taken," she said.
She also revealed that government had agreed to deploy labour attachés to countries where Uganda has a huge number of migrant workers to improve the turnaround time in responding to distressed workers.
She said Uganda government was working to sign bilateral agreements with other countries, including Qatar, Oman, Turkey, among others, where there is already a big number of Ugandans.
She commended International Organisation for Migration (IOM) for having collaborated with the ministry to develop a pre-departure training curriculum for Ugandans destined to work abroad, and said the trainings have helped in preparing the workers to absorb culture shocks, religion difference and work ethic, among other parametres. She said this has a direct bearing on the how the workers progress at duty.
There are over 80,000 Ugandans working in Middle East countries, according to government. But many have reported being physically assaulted, sexually abused and in worst case scenarios returned to Uganda in body bags.