Who is benefiting from maids export?

Ugandan girls board a plane at Entebbe airport for work as housemaids in the Saudi Arabia last year. At least 77,914 migrant workers went to Saudi Arabia, according to data reflected in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development migrant labour report covering 11 months in 2022. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Every year, roughly 80,000 young Ugandan women flock to the six nations of the Middle East in search of jobs.  
  • Several are trafficked by unscrupulous individuals and others typically recruited by labour externalisation companies.
  • With the trade becoming a mixed bag of fortunes, Gabriel Buule looks at who is benefiting from the labour export in the Middle East.

Joanitah Joshirah Ndagire was promised a monthly pay of Shs1, 478,000, for a housemaid job in Oman and her hope was that she would use the money to rescue her mother’s struggling retail shop and also find her own footing since she had failed to find one after graduation.

“I had a diploma in law and I had failed to find a job. I got frustrated because my parents had paid a lot of money to see me through school yet after graduating, I could not help them financially,” Ndagire narrates.

Ndagire relates that a job in the Arab world seemed an easy option, and that prompted her to chase quick money to support her family.

A one Musa Mayimbwa enticed Ndagire with a job offer in Oman with a promise to earn Shs1,478,000 after investing Shs250,000 as travel and job processing fee.

It was upon her arrival in Muscat, Oman, that she realised that Muyimbwa had sold her to a labour agency in Oman at $2,000 (Shs7.4m) and the agency auctioned her at $3,500 (Shs13m).

“Together with other girls, we were piled in a room with wide burglar proof windows where wealthy families came with their children to select a girl of their choice and take her to work. I remember one girl was rejected for being too thin and having a bad odour. They took her and returned her a day later,” she further explains.

Sold at a fee, Ndagire was tortured, subjected to hard labour, never paid and returned back to Uganda.
Ndagire, the programmes lead on combating human trafficking and head of the survivors group at John Paul II Justice and Peace Centre in Kampala, says the beneficiaries of the maid business in the Middle East are government, traffickers and labour agencies whose sole target is to make money at the expense of Ugandans who suffer.

Limited livelihoods are among the push factors for a significant number of unskilled Ugandan young people, who often emigrate to Middle Eastern countries through irregular channels.

The traffickers
Several police crime reports have shown an increase in human trafficking. A report identifies that there were 710 victims in 2021, more than twice the number (257) of trafficking victims in 2020, with 668 cases recorded in the 2022 police crime report.

Mariam Mwiza, an anti-human trafficking activist and the proprietor of Overseas Worker’s Voice Uganda, says the undocumented beneficiaries of the maid trade are the human traffickers.

Mwiza explains that trafficking is carried out by both unscrupulous individuals and licenced agencies, which carry out dark schemes.

She notes that there are unscrupulous individuals working with registered companies and some companies are operating dark schemes.

“Domestic workers frequently complain to us about recruitment agencies that sell them at a fee and others report side dealings with people working with agencies,” she notes.

Mwiza reveals that most agencies earn more in commission compared to what the workers earn and often many workers end up being forced to extend their contracts indefinitely, unpaid, and repeatedly sold to other employers without their consent.

In June 2021, the government, through the ministries of Internal Affairs and that of Gender, Labour and Social Development, suspended at least eight external labour recruitment agencies, citing forgeries and other abuses such as trafficking and extortion. 

In July last year, the Cabinet halted the registration of new labour export companies in Uganda until the line ministry provides a comprehensive report on the measures being taken to ensure the safety and wellbeing of migrant workers.

Mwiza reveals that trafficking is also done via social media, where young people are lured into the unscrupulous market.

In 2021, tech giant Apple threatened to pull Facebook and Instagram from its app store over concerns about the platform being used as a tool to trade and sell maids in the Middle East.

Agency emolument to government

There are a total of 276 firms that are licensed to export labour.
Ronnie Mukundane, the spokesperson of Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA), reveals that an agency applies to do business at a fee of Shs2m.

Upon approval, the applying labour agency pays Shs100 million in Bank guarantee.
For each job secured for a Ugandan worker in the Middle East, the agency remits $30 (Shs111,000) to the government through Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) at a flat fee of Shs200,000 to the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development (MGLSD) per job lot.

The application must include the names and nationality of employees, directors, and shareholders, their bio data, dates of employment, their tax returns for the preceding year, and clearance from the Criminal Investigations Directorate.

Between 2020 and 2021, remittances from migrant workers stood at $900m (Shs3.3 trillion) compared to coffee exports that fetched $559m (Shs2 trillion) during the same period.

Statistics from the MGLSD shared in 2022 indicate that from 2016, at least 223,102 domestic and professional migrant workers have left the country for the Middle East.

The figures do not reflect the number of Ugandans who are trafficked into the Middle East.Official data indicate that workers earn between Shs900,000 and Shs1.2m, which is subject to taxes whenever maids send money back home.

Not worth it

A report by Migrants Rights on the state of Ugandan migrant workers in the Middle East indicate that only three percent of Ugandans who previously worked in the UAE believe that the UAE had better job opportunities than other countries.

Of the prospective migrant workers interviewed, 82 percent planned to work as domestic workers, 13 percent as security guards, and the rest as chefs, drivers, and cleaners.
According to the MGLSD, 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.

Uganda housemaids in the Middle East
Data reflected in the MGLSD migrant labour report covering 11 months in 2022 shows that at least 7,724 migrant workers left Uganda per month in search of employment in the Middle East.

The 7,724 monthly average returned an annual total of 84,966, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, taking in the largest number of Uganda’s migrant workers.

Of the 84,966, at least 77,914 migrant workers went to Saudi Arabia, of which 55,643 were mainly housemaids.

The charges 

What maids pay to agencies

Mariam Mwiza, an anti-human trafficking activist and the proprietor of Overseas Worker’s Voice Uganda, says maids pay between Shs60,000 and Shs100,000 for registration fees, and they are then asked to pay for their passports, with the fee ranging from Shs500,000, even though the official figure is Shs250,000 for ordinary passports, and for express processing, an extra fee of Shs150,000.

Furthermore, applicants are supposed to pay for health check-up and training. However, Mwiza says some agencies foot the bills and find a way of earning off the worker’s salary.
Regulations allow agencies to charge a standard administrative fee up to Shs20,000 ($6), or “recruitment and placement” fees with no ceiling, but that should be approved by the ministry and not paid by the worker until the employment contract is signed.

What agencies charge for recruitment
According to Migrants Rights, a rights organisation advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East, recruitment fees depend on the employment sector.
The average costs, according to the workers we interviewed, are as follows:
Security guard: $2,237 (Shs8.3m)
Hospitality: $1300 (Shs4.8m)
Drivers: $1,000 (Shs3.7m)
General cleaners: $600 (Shs2.2m)
Airport cleaners: $600 (Shs2.2m)
Baggage handlers (airport staff): $600 (Shs2.2m)
Construction workers: $650 (Shs2.4m)
Domestic workers: $56 (Shs200,000)

Unemployment in Uganda
At least 41 percent of the population, mainly youth aged between 18 and 30 years, who represent 9.3 million, are not engaged in any productive activity, according to findings contained in the Uganda National Labour Force Survey of 2022.

Youth unemployment remains a serious challenge to Uganda, which has forced the government to recently concede that the level of the country’s growth was not matching up with job creation.