Why the Middle East is a rose with thorns

Some Ugandans wait to be cleared at Entebbe International Airport before they take a flight to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for work last year. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Activists say work in the Middle East is made difficult by the repressive ‘Kafala’ system, which in effect gives the employer the responsibility of upholding foreign workers’ legal status and visa.

What happens to Ugandans when they set out in the Middle East in the quest for jobs? The tale of Grace Nakayi, 25, does more than just give a snapshot. 
When she left Uganda for Iraq, the local tour and travel company she had engaged had assured her that she was going to discharge duties of a housemaid. 

For this, she would get Shs1.5m each month. Eyes that lit up during her departure soon dimmed in Iraq upon discovering that her job was to sexually satisfy an 80-year-old pensioner.
When Nakayi protested, she was sent back to a receiving agent in Iraq. During a month-long confinement, she was encouraged to reconsider her stand. The encouragement was not just verbal. Nakayi was oftentimes subjected to all kinds of harassment, including beating. She was also forced to drink alcohol and smoke shisha. 

Nakayi’s breakthrough came after she used the phone of an inmate to send a desperate call for help. It was only then that a local organisation negotiated her freedom. Her story mirrors that of several Ugandans who have come to learn the hard way that the Middle East rose flower has thorns.
Fiona Nabirye, 23, paid a local agent Shs3.7m in November 2019 to help her actualise her dream of working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She jounced wildly on rutted dirt roads before using a porous border at Lwakhakha in Manafwa District to get to Kenya. Soon, she was at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, with a ticket in hand that indicated Dubai as her final destination.

If she expected red-carpet treatment in Dubai, she got the shock of her life when all numbers of receiving agents she had in her possession were switched off. The number of the agent back in Uganda was all right, but he wasn’t much help. He categorically told Nabirye to think on her feet. She spent months squatting at Union Space in Dubai. Jobless.
“I got in touch with Ugandans and Nigerians, who were also stuck and we hustled to find jobs,” she recalls, adding, “In most places we would be rejected as employers would say they only want to employ Indians and Philippines nationals.” 

Nabirye then had a brush with the law when she overstayed her visa and had no money to buy a return ticket. She was only rescued from a detention centre by a friend.
“Before you go to the Middle East, the labour agency tells you a lot of floral stories and promises, but the moment you arrive, the receiving agency changes goal posts,” she warns, adding of the victims, “Some are switched to different jobs, others are overworked … in case of any complaint, it is easier to get kicked out.”

What exactly happens?
Mariam Mwiza, an anti-human trafficking activist, who doubles as the executive director of Overseas Workers Voice Uganda (OWVU), reveals that work in the Middle East is made difficult by the repressive ‘Kafala’ system. The system in effect gives the employer the responsibility of upholding foreign workers’ legal status and visa. It also restricts many aspects of an employee’s mobility.

“The system protects the employer at the expense of the worker, which makes the employers to go extra on some things, say withholding passports to control over legal status,” she told Saturday Monitor, adding, “This system can’t allow them to change employment regardless of the mistreatment because they’re under the control of the boss.”
Mwiza doesn’t mince words when she alleges the system aids slavery. 
“The system can’t give powers to the employer over exit visas, it is the boss to decide whether the migrant worker can exist or not,” she said of the Kafala system that defines the relationship between migrant workers and their local sponsor or kafeel.

The system binds workers through contract to a kafeel, who controls their immigration status. The kafeel has full control over contract terms, including wage and accommodation. This is as long as state law is not violated.
Mwiza says it is upon the Ugandan government to discuss terms of employment suitable for Ugandans who work in the Middle East. She adds that such an undertaking would ensure Ugandans are protected from the law that protected slave owners in the Middle East before slavery was stopped in 1962 in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Last month, Ms Betty Amongi—the Gender and Labour minister—said none of the 452 Ugandans who were at the time being held at the Al Awir Immigration Centre for assessment and eventual repatriation to Uganda “traveled through a recruitment company.” 

An August 2022 report authored by the Uganda Mission in Abu Dhabi indicated that most Ugandans in distress in the UAE travel through informal channels.
Shafick Ssebadduka, a Ugandan labour agent in Dubai, says background checks on labour export companies in Uganda are of the essence before one stakes their lot with them. Most victims, he adds, simply get duped by individuals and labour companies which either get involved in human trafficking or fail to take up responsibility in case of miscommunication between the employees, receiving agents and the employers.
“Sometimes people get to overstay and life becomes expensive to maintain,” he says of Ugandans who go to the UAE on tourist visas, adding, “One has to at least pay Shs250,000 for bed space, then food, transport and data, which is expensive for a person who does not work.” 

Overstaying one’s welcome
The law is explicit insofar as the repercussions of overstaying in the UAE is concerned. The law says this is criminal, usually attracting hefty penalties and fines. It is understood that for UAE residents, any person on a residence visa shall be fined AED 125 (Shs129,000) and then AED 25 (about Shs26,000) for each passing day. The AED 25 fine doubles each day after a year of overstaying your welcome.
Overstays in Dubai may be subject to certain penalties, including a fine, jail time, or deportation. The severity of the penalty usually depends on the State.

Ssebadduka adds that overstays account for an equivalent of Shs50,000 per day for a Ugandan immigrant who gets stuck in Dubai. In case one has money, there is an allowance to apply for an extension or waiver.
Overstay fines in the UAE can be settled at the land border or port of any Emirate. It can also be settled at any international airport while leaving the nation.
Immigration officers attached to the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) can aid one in settling overstay fines. Amer officers can also be contacted for the same to make the process of leaving the country completely hassle-free.

Ugandans in the Middle East

On April 20, this newspaper reported that on a daily basis, approximately 300 Ugandans travel to the Gulf States. We revealed that many of them get employed in casual jobs. These jobs earn them anywhere between $200 (Shs760,000) and $500 (Shs1.9m) per month.
According to data from the United Nations, more than 620,000 Ugandans live outside the country and are employed within East Africa, Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East, among others.

Statistics from the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development indicate that at least 28,000 Ugandans seek household jobs in the Middle East annually due to poverty, unemployment, domestic violence and family breakdown, inter alia.
According to the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) 2021 report, 28 Ugandan migrant workers—the majority of whom are women—died in different countries in the Middle East where they were serving as domestic workers.

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