Jobs in the Middle East; the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater

Author, Benjamin Rukwengye. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

  • Why isn’t everybody focused on bilateral agreements and enforcement/support measures to guarantee and ensure that everybody wins?  

Last Friday should have passed without much incident. The African Institute for Investigative Journalism was scheduled to screen a documentary chronicling the perils of the labour export industry, at the Mestil Hotel in Nsambya.

Its two founders, Solomon Sserwanja and Raymond Mujuni are quite amiable and placative, yet thorough, uncompromising, and dogged as journalists. When they smell a good story that requires deepthroat analysis, they don’t stop. Few subjects are as dicey as labour export – especially of domestic migrant workers.

The launch event didn’t happen because apparently, many players in the labor externalization industry don’t play by the same rulebook as many others aspire to. Ostensibly, several people in the business didn’t want the event to take off. So, they got the police to try and threaten the conveners into calling it off, but the two of them didn’t rise to the top of their trade by cowering and acquiescing in the face of adversity.

When that didn’t work, they approached the hotel, applied pressure, and got it to dehost the event. Instead, the journalists uploaded the video to YouTube, where it now has 36,000 views - proving yet again that nobody can stop reggae. The long and short of it is that every day, close to 500 girls leave Uganda for the Middle East – mostly Saudi Arabia - to work as housemaids.

There are tens of reasons for this mass migration but all of it boils down to the failure of systems at home – from the economy to education to the bureaucracy and the private sector – which have all connived to deprive young people of opportunity, hope, and dignity. Starved of options but drowning in dreams and responsibility, they seek pastures afar. Some – a good majority – have made something of the move, which is why hundreds are willing to join in on the bounty hunting. Many others however haven’t been as lucky. They have been mistreated, harassed, assaulted, detained, overworked, maimed, and some killed. They have also not gotten much support from a government that is happy to take in their $1.2 billion in remittances but isn’t interested in guaranteeing their safety and welfare. It is some of these dire circumstances that the documentary highlights.

For clarity, there is nothing wrong with the externalization of labor skilled and/or unskilled – especially in instances like Uganda’s where opportunities are in such short supply. Many young Ugandans and their families have these jobs to thank for the upgrades to their lives and know that wouldn’t have made anything out of this country as it is.

Also, believe it or not, it’s not just housemaids. There are hundreds of other professionals doing more lucrative and respectable work as drivers, plumbers, barristers, teachers, health instructors, etc. Again, because they probably wouldn’t find work or enough pay at home. Lastly, we are not the only suppliers – the Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, and every other country where jobs aren’t enough and desperation is heightened, are in the mix.

Which brings us to why then doesn’t the government feed and tend to this cow whose $1.2 billion annual return it is happy to milk? There are two key contributory factors. Let’s start with the country of origin. The Uganda government, both in speaking and practice isn’t highly rated for how it treats and values its citizens. The ones at home know this so well. However, not until you get into some trouble abroad do you understand it properly. There are too many examples to list here.

The other contributing factor is the destination countries. Governments in the Middle East don’t have any pretenses about things like democracy and respect for freedoms and human rights. But also, they are such a hierarchical and classist society. It is easy to see where a black woman from Africa, coming to work as a domestic servant would fall on the rung of hierarchies. Easy to predict how she might be treated.

Yet here we are. This is not a case in which everybody can’t win. Leaders in the Gulf need the kind of labor to maintain the lifestyle that they have designed for their citizens. Leaders and families here need the money from remittances, and legroom from the potential explosion should we keep the millions of under/unemployed young people here.

So why isn’t everybody focused on bilateral agreements and enforcement/support measures to guarantee and ensure that everybody wins? Can’t be that hard, if anybody cared. Right?

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds. @Rukwengye