Ugandan domestic workers stuck between poverty wages at home and extreme exploitation abroad

Ugandan domestic workers stuck between poverty wages at home and extreme exploitation abroad

Many young Ugandan women who try to escape unemployment and poverty at home end up as domestic workers in the Middle East where they face serious exploitation and abuse.

(Nicholas Bamulanzeki)

Hasifa Walugambire was running a grocery shop in Jinja, a town approximately two hours east of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, when a local man working for a Kenyan recruitment agency said he could get her a job in Oman.

She would work in a bank, he told her, where she would be paid a monthly salary of US$690 (2.5 million Ugandan shillings), far more than anything she could ever earn from running a store.

Excited about the prospect of a better life, the 28-year-old paid US$1250 (approximately 4.5 million shillings) to an agency in Kenya to facilitate her travel.

“I invested all my savings to get the job because I thought it was going to change my life and my family’s life. But the six months I spent in Oman was hell. I came back home with nothing,” says Hasifa.

Every year tens of thousands of Ugandan women leave their country to work abroad, particularly to Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar where they work as nannies, cooks and house helps. But exploitation and abuse is rife, with many falling victim to trafficking and serious abuse at the hands of fake recruitment agencies and unscrupulous employers.

Grace Mukwaya who works for Platform for Labour Action, a Ugandan NGO that supports and protects the rights of marginalised workers, says the Uganda-Kenya border is a popular point for traffickers smuggling Ugandan girls to the Middle East. “Many cross the border pretending to be going to Kenya for a visit, while others are smuggled by traffickers through unguarded points,” she tells Equal Times.

Hasifa says she was taken through the bush to Kenya before boarding a bus to Nairobi. There, she joined about 50 other young women, mostly from Uganda, who were also waiting to travel. A week later, they left for the Omani capital of Muscat where Hasifa soon realised that there was no bank job waiting for her. Instead, together with the other recruits, she was taken to a private house and her passport was confiscated. She was going to be a domestic worker.

“Then one-by-one, men started coming into the house to pay money and pick out the girls they wanted to go with,” Hasifa recalls. After she was selected by one of the men, Hasifa says she was taken to a multi-storey house where over 20 family members lived. “I used to work for more than 15 hours without taking a break. When you stop to rest, they shout at you or beat you.”

The long hours of heavy work caused Hasifa to develop a tear on her caesarian section scar. “I started bleeding frequently but when I asked to be taken for treatment, they beat me and locked me in a room, or forced me to return to work while I was in pain.”

When Hasifa got to the point where she could no longer tolerate the abuse she ran away to the Muscat office of her recruitment agency and asked to be returned home. There, she found 15 other Ugandan women who had also escaped from their abusive employers. But instead of being helped, they were told to go back to their employers or go to jail.

“They [the recruiters] would undress us and beat us everyday and tell us to go back to work. Because of the beatings and mistreatment, some girls ran mad,” says Hasifa.

Luckily, one of the detained girls had a phone and a local SIM card, which Hasifa used to call her family back home and alert them to her situation. With help from Uganda’s National Organisation of Trade Unions (NOTU), she was traced by the Ugandan embassy and eventually returned home to her family.

Migrant labour ban

According to research from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics and International Labour Organization (ILO), 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 Hasifa 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 the Ugandan 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 this May, the ban was reversed following the signing of bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

According to a report presented to parliament in May 2017 by Janat Mukwaya the Ugandan Minister for Gender, Labour and Social Affairs, the temporary ban did not stop citizens from seeking jobs in the Middle East, and in fact only served to exacerbate acts of trafficking.

Mukwaya’s report revealed that between 2015 and 2016, the government repatriated 200 domestic workers who had been detained in various Middle Eastern countries after they escaped from their abusive employers.

“We put a one year ban in place to try and understand the industry but we soon realised that it had instead increased underground export, exposing many Ugandan girls to human trafficking. So we decided it was safer to lift it and instead put in place mechanisms that can ensure that those who migrate for work are protected and monitored,” Martin Wandera, the director for labour at Uganda’s Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Affairs, tells Equal Times.

But activists say that economics may have played a role in the government’s decision to lift the ban. With about 59,000 Ugandans currently working in the Middle East, according to figures from the Ministry of Labour, the east African nation receives about US$6million in remittances every month. This money, the Ministry says, is helping to improve the economic status of family members who have stayed back home. And it is money that those families cannot afford to do without.

Douglas Opio, the head of policy and research at the Federation of Uganda Employers says that while such contributions are good for the economy, the government and recruitment agencies need to do a lot more to safeguard the rights of domestic workers.

As a standard measure for instance, Opio says licensed recruitment agencies must provide the correct information about the nature of jobs, payment and work conditions to domestic workers before they are deployed.

“Often times, there is no contract signed between employer and employee and where the contract exists the domestic worker is not aware of the terms and conditions laid out by the employer,” says Opio.

More worker protections

According to a government communiqué issued on 27 May to explain the decision to lift the ban, Uganda has instituted a number of measures to promote the safe migration of domestic migrant workers to the Middle East. This includes: improved communication between various ministries such as the Directorate of Immigration, the Labour Ministry and the police at all exit points; mandatory pre-departure orientation for all migrant workers employed through recruitment agencies, as well as clearance from the Ministry of Labour; a four-party contract between the employee, the employer, the recruitment company in Uganda and in the receiving country to ensure joint liability for any breach in a worker’s contract; and the establishment of an emergency fund to offer legal aid, medical assistance and emergency repatriation for migrant workers in need of assistance.

In addition, the government has revamped the Ugandan Association of External Recruitment Agencies, to which all licensed companies are expected to be members. Wandera also told Equal Times that the Ugandan government will soon open a liaison office in Saudi Arabia for migrant workers, pending the recruitment of a labour attaché. This office will have an online monitoring system that will allow the Ugandan government to vet recruitment companies in Saudi Arabia as well as back home.

Wandera also says that migrant workers will now be regularly monitored after deployment and that recruitment agencies will only be permitted to work in countries that have signed bilateral agreements with Uganda.

Currently, Uganda has signed bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but the Labour Ministry says it expects to sign an agreement with Qatar some time in early June, while negotiations for similar agreements with Kuwait, Oman, the UAE and Bahrain are pending.

However, bilateral agreements are only the beginning. As Usher Wilson Owere, the secretary general of the NOTU says, bilateral agreements cannot offer concrete solutions unless the Gulf countries take a lead in reforming their own labour laws.

One recent example of this is the UAE, which only last week announced a new Domestic Labour Law which will provide domestic workers with 30 days paid annual leave, rest days, medical insurance and the right to keep hold of their personal identification papers, amongst other measures.

According to Human Rights Watch, however, the new provisions are “weaker than UAE labour law,” which stipulates an eight-hour work day and a 48-hour workweek amongst other things. The new measures also fall short of the ILO Domestic Workers Convention which calls for domestic workers to have the same rights as other categories of workers.

The next step is officially ending kafala, a Gulf-wide sponsorship system that gives employers extraordinary control over the lives of migrant workers.

According to a 2017 legal and policy briefing by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), under the kafala system, employers are sponsors – or kafeels – who determine their demand for labour and meet it by direct recruitment or through intermediaries such as employment agencies.

“A migrant worker’s immigration status is thus specifically tied to an individual sponsor for their contract period. Such workers are thereby rendered more vulnerable by the lack of autonomy in relation to their employer,” reads the brief.

It further states that until the kafala system is abolished in the Gulf countries, legislation or mandatory standard form contracts will have limited effect.

As a longer-term solution, Opio suggests that the Ugandan government takes the lead in creating more decent work for its citizens at home and minimise the exodus to the Middle East. But until such a time, people like Hasifa will continue to be vulnerable to exploitation.