What you need to know:
- Sharon Kusasira, a mother of two, was 26 when she boarded a flight to Jordan. She had been lured by her maternal uncle to Jordan to work as a supermarket attendant. She instead ended up working as an overstretched housemaid, who soon lost her fingers.
- According to the ministry of gender labour and social development, there has been a rapid surge in the number of Ugandans travelling to the Middle East, growing fourfold from an average of 24,086 between 2016 and 2021 to 84,966 in 2022.
“If you ask me why I went to the Middle East, I can hardly give you an answer. The story began with my UK-based uncle, who talked me into going to the Middle East for work.
I travelled to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
I will always regret my decision to go there after getting a permanent disability. I can forgive myself for not getting paid in Saudi Arabia, but losing my fingers is a thing that will haunt me forever.
Unlike many who say they chose to go to work in the Middle East because of extreme financial conditions in their family, mine was a tale of a young woman who wanted to explore and perhaps earn something.
However, it was never as flowery as suggested by my uncle and the labour export company that enticed me to go and work [before] leaving my concerns to go unheeded when I noticed red flags of hard labour.
Upon arrival in Jordan, I was told that I had been sold to my employer for a period of two years by a labour company in Uganda. [This] did not worry me because my employers willingly paid my salary.
How I lost my fingers
In Jordan, I worked for a family of three and my employer was of moderate temperament. Like any other domestic worker, my tasks were to cook, clean and wash clothes, which I executed well.
I was never bullied by anyone, but the work was too much and I had to improvise to make sure I got everything done as prescribed by my employer.
Within a month of work, I noticed that the detergents I was using to wash would create a strange reaction on my body. The situation would be worse the moment I would get close to fire, yet I had to do both washing and cooking.
I talked to my boss and she told me that I was just new in the environment and that with time, my body would get used to the detergents.
Soon after complaining, the situation worsened as my fingers started to get wounds. My employer provided gloves with a strict order that the gloves would only be for washing yet I was using similar detergents for scrubbing, mopping and washing utensils.
My woes began the moment my fingers started rotting and my employer denied me the right to treatment. My request to return to Uganda was met with a condition to repay the money they had “bought me” with from the labour agency in Kampala.
I complained to the labour company back home in Uganda and they told me that I never wanted to work. The sister labour receiving company in Jordan that was monitoring me in the country said the same.
Desperate for solutions, I shared my concern in a WhatsApp group of Ugandan migrant workers in the Middle East. They advised me to apply lemons after washing but the situation only worsened.
My fingers continued to rot and my employer never met her promise of taking me to hospital until half of one finger dropped off.
Between a rock and a hard place
Besides overworking me, compared to the employers of other Ugandan maids, my employer was relatively fair. She, however, saw me as an investment and wanted value for her money. She claimed that before my flight to Jordan, she had paid for everything, including my passport. I had, however, paid for the passport and some bills except the air ticket.
My employer said to me that the agency in Uganda had been fully paid. Upon termination of my contract, there was an agreement that she would get a full refund. She revealed then that sending my monthly salary of Shs900,000 back home to my mother for the three months I had been on the job was just a favour she extended to me.
As I kept sharing my ordeal with the people I knew, a friend advised me to inbox the Facebook account of anti-human trafficking activist, Ms Marriam Mwiza. She promptly volunteered to help me. Mwiza called the agency and my employer in Jordan, who strictly demanded that they get paid in order to let me go.
As Mwiza continued to pressure the labour agency in Uganda, my employer asked to know if my parents were rich because her refund had been fully paid together with my return ticket. She then pleaded that I stay, promising that she would treat me. My friends had [however] already warned me that it is very risky to trust the local employers. She drove me to the airport and tipped me $300 (Shs1.1m) as a token of appreciation. I returned to Uganda in January 2019 after working for three months.
Taken to Saudi Arabia
Upon returning to Uganda, I took a few tablets of Ampiclox and PPF injections given at a local clinic and I got some relief. In February 2019, I returned to the agency that had flown me to Jordan. I was in the company of a friend who was going to Saudi Arabia.
Not only did they convince my friend, whom I had sought to dissuade from travelling, they also told me that Saudi Arabia would be a better place and that I should dream bigger. Going to Saudi Arabia would be an opportunity for me to own a car, they said.
One of the directors shared how before starting up the agency, he had worked in stressful nursing homes in South Africa and the US. Subconsciously, he was preparing my mind to work in Saudi Arabia.
Somehow, I was convinced and eventually gave them my passport. In a week’s time, everything was sorted for me to travel. The agency called me to prepare for early morning travel and I lied to them that I was upcountry. Still, they sent the money.
I cried out of fear and called my mother to tell her that I was worried. She told me to be strong. We had a flight that had a brief stop in Ethiopia and later landed in Saudi Arabia.
My first worry was when we were piled in a room at the airport and served rotten bread with live cockroaches. By contrast, the Bangladeshis and Filipinos were treated differently.
We boarded a van [with tinted windows] and were driven nearly eight hours to an unknown destination. The driver made several stopovers, dropping off some girls along the way. There, we were ushered into a house and split into groups.
Our passports were confiscated and they asked me if I had worked in any Arab country before. I said yes. They told me unlike Jordan, in Saudi Arabia, you cannot work for three months. I had to fulfil the two-year contract, although I had not signed anywhere.
They told me I was going to work for a company instead of individuals and the deal was that I would be deployed to work as a housemaid in several homes. I would work in a different home every two months.
After the briefing, I stayed back after everyone had been picked. I was picked at midnight the next day and driven for close to five hours and we arrived when my employer’s family was having the morning meal as they were preparing to fast. They ate and after told me to eat the leftovers, which I confidently refused.
On my first day, I was confronted by my employer for charging my phone without seeking permission to plug my charger in the socket. On the same day, I served more than 20 people. I would serve, cook, clean. I got worried.
A visitor who noticed I was tired joined in and helped.
The first week was hectic and my fingers got the same issues that I suffered in Jordan.
The labour company back home asked my employer to give me gloves.
The office in Saudi Arabia asked me to stay for two months, after which they would change my place of work, but the situation was already out of hand.
At one point, I fell sick and my employer insisted that I work without treatment until I started vomiting severely.
She asked her son to buy me medicine.
Mwiza to the rescue
Mwiza, who helped me in Jordan, had counselled and asked me to be careful with migrant work opportunities. Sadly, I never listened. I reached out to Mwiza, apologised and narrated my ordeal. She talked to the company. A day later, I was driven out of the house to the airport.
Before leaving the home, my employer ordered that my bags be searched for stolen property. They had not paid me. My employer found a few coins and dirhams in my bag, which her daughter—who was there as a witness—had given me in tips. She protected me from the furious mother.
Her son drove me to the bus stop, tipped me 1,000 dirhams (about Shs1m) and left me there. Hours later, a man turned up with my photo and asked me to hand over a small phone that had been given to me by the agency. He gave me back my passport.
I boarded a bus and embarked on a journey of almost 12 hours without food or water. A man I later came to know as Sayeed initiated a conversation in which he revealed that he was a Kenyan migrant worker. He was an employee of the bus company.
Sayeed bought me food and water and also provided a Wi-Fi hotspot for me to speak to my family. He told me that Ugandans are mistreated and he usually meets many stranded.
I was received by another old man, who was holding my photo at the next bus station. He took me to his home where I found other Ugandans arriving for work and others leaving. He drove me to the airport.
I viewed work in the Middle East as an opportunity to experience flying on an aeroplane since I had never been on one.
But, surely, life was normal in Uganda and in case of any financial crisis, my parents were able to assist me.
I lost a finger, self-esteem and I got traumatised. I will never go to the Middle East for work again.”
Maid in Middle East will next week illuminate the story of Sarah Nakitende, who sought work in Saudi Arabia to cater to her sick brother’s medical bills. She lost her brother and more after a nightmarish experience.