On November 11, Sarah Namutebi (name changed to protect her privacy) was returned from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where she was employed as a domestic worker.
Namutebi sought help to be repatriated after her employers repeatedly subjected her to demeaning forms of mistreatment and harassment. Speaking at the ministry of internal affairs recently, Namutebi told The Observer that she was taken to Dubai by a one Tabitha Zawedde, who assured her of a job in one of the biggest hotels there.
She was to earn Shs 2.5 million per month, a dream for the average professional in Uganda. However, when Namutebi reached Dubai, the only job available for her was to work as a house maid. Her employer forced her to work, saying they had invested a lot of money in paying for her visa and air ticket.
This confused Namutebi. She had also paid Zawedde Shs 6 million, ostensibly for travel-related expenses. The coordinator for prevention of human trafficking at the ministry of internal affairs, Moses Binoga, says they are now hunting for Zawedde, who they intend to charge with human trafficking and obtaining money by false pretence.
Stories of the exploitation of young Ugandans women lured to the Middle East are now commonplace, although reliable statistics are not. Binoga said that since January 2015, about 350 people have been trafficked as domestic workers, according to records available at the ministry.
In September, the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, returned from Saudi Arabia shocked after hearing similar stories. She demanded that the government gives Parliament a detailed explanation of its plan to protect Ugandans working in Saudi Arabia. Short of that, she said, the government should cancel any dealing on the issue with the Asian countries altogether.
On September 22, Kadaga told Parliament that the government was not capable of supervising or monitoring the working conditions of domestic workers employed in a foreign country to ensure the respect of their human rights.
“Countries like the Philippines and Ethiopia have banned the exportation of their people to work in the Middle East, but the government has ignored a Parliament resolution to stop the practice in Uganda,” she said.
Kadaga’s plea came about two months after the government announced that it had signed an agreement with the Saudi Arabia government that paved the way for Uganda to export up to 30,000 unemployed youths to do menial jobs in the oil-rich Arab kingdom.
Announcing the deal in July, the minister for gender, labour and social development, Muruli Mukasa, said the government would outsource the recruitment of the individuals to registered private labour companies.
“This agreement is very significant. It is the first of its kind we have signed with a labour-destined country, and we are very confident that after this agreement, cases of abuse of Ugandans will be minimal,” he said.
Jobs available under the agreement, according to the government, include private pilots, personal doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, secretaries, security guards, private drives and housemaids.
“Under this agreement, employers will be required to provide a return air ticket, decent accommodation, identity cards on arrival, health insurance, transport to and from work and eight working hours a day. Beyond this, employees will be paid overtime allowances.”
NO TURNING BACK
The coordinator of the External Employment Unit (EEU) in the labour ministry, Milton Turyasiima, says Kadaga’s proposal to stop the deal is not feasible because there is no law that can be used to enforce it.
“There is no law that stops domestic workers from working abroad. Article 28 and 29 of the Constitution gives freedom to all Ugandans to move and work anywhere abroad and then return home after completing their contracts. Maybe what Kadaga can say is to find ways of fighting challenges domestic workers face abroad,” he explained.
According to Turyasiima, most of the domestic workers that are mistreated abroad are those that go through unlicensed companies and individuals. They do not care where they deploy the workers and can easily go into hiding in case there is a problem involving their workers.
“When people use licensed companies and are mistreated abroad, they immediately report to the companies that took them since they are allowed to have phones and passports on job and then they process their visas and return home,” he said.
Turyasiima advised all Ugandan domestic workers in Saudi Arabia who face any kind of mistreatment to report their complaints to the Saudi Manpower Services Company (SMASCO), a private company, because Uganda signed the Saudi Arabia agreement with SAMSCO.
In the meantime, according to Turyasiima, Uganda is in the process of signing other agreements with other countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq and United Arab Emirates (UAE) to fight exploitation of domestic workers.