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Ugandan maids work in hell

Migrant workers heading to Middle East

Migrant workers heading to Middle East

Every year, a significant number of young girls and boys depart their home country in search of better prospects overseas.

However, the grim reality often contrasts with their hopes, as many face appalling conditions including starvation, physical abuse, imprisonment, lack of medical attention, non-payment and, tragically, even death.

In some instances, labor export agencies exploit individuals by extracting money in exchange for promised employment opportunities. According to the International Organization for Migration, while remittances sent back home contribute to the livelihoods of dependent families, they often come at a steep cost to the well-being of the workers themselves. Many endure exploitative working and living conditions that verge on human trafficking and forced labor.

Recently, it has become commonplace for domestic workers to utilize social media platforms like TikTok and Facebook to raise awareness about their grievances. These stories, often shocking and heart-wrenching, shed light on the immense toll young individuals pay in pursuit of better prospects abroad. Some labor companies deceitfully offer fictitious job opportunities, coercing individuals to sell all their possessions, only for them to fall victim to scams.

Efforts to seek legal recourse against such unscrupulous companies frequently prove fruitless, with some entities having ties to government officials and others resorting to intimidation tactics. Many individuals, having invested considerable sums in travel documentation, arrive at their destination only to realize they are left to fend for themselves, with these companies merely facilitating their journey abroad.

Upon arrival, some find themselves treated as commodities awaiting sale to their employers. Disturbing videos depict girls locked in rooms, deprived of their possessions, and surviving on meager rations. Several reports indicate that Ugandans working in the Middle East are denied ad- equate medical care, often receiving only basic pain relief medication for various ailments.

They also claim to be overworked by their employers, with minimal rest afforded to them. In a shocking revelation, one Ugandan worker disclosed that her employers asserted ownership of her, claiming to have purchased her for Shs 15 million. She was allegedly informed that her only means of returning to Uganda was by repaying this supposed debt.

Despite earning between Shs 900,000 and Shs 1.2 million, domestic workers face rampant abuse and exploitation. Yet, due to limited employment opportunities locally, the number of individuals seeking work abroad continues to rise. Public outcry over the mistreatment of Ugandan workers in the Middle East has prompted government intervention.

RECRUITMENT

In the recruitment process for domestic workers, there are typically no stringent requirements. Recruiters often target girls from impoverished families, particularly those with limited education, with the primary necessity being possession of a passport.

Upon arrival in the Middle East, these girls undergo medical examinations to assess their health status. These tests commonly include evaluations of liver and kidney function, as well as pregnancy testing. Should a girl be found to be unwell or pregnant, she is typically deemed unfit for work in the Middle East and is repatriated to her home country.

Ideally, recruitment agencies should act as intermediaries between the employer and the employee. However, some agencies fail to uphold standards of fairness and transparency. While some agencies allow girls to depart without formal contracts, others mandate that wages not be disbursed for the initial two months of employment.

These practices contribute to the vulnerability of domestic workers and underscore the need for improved oversight and regulation within the recruitment industry.

LABOUR EXPORT FIGURES DROP

Recently, the ministry of Gender, Labor, and Social Development revealed that the government incurred losses amounting to Shs 10.4 billion due to a decline in the number of domestic workers seeking employment opportunities in the Middle East. This decrease is substantial, with figures dropping from 55,643 to 34,234 in 2022.

Several factors contribute to this decline, including the closure of businesses by labor export firms and concerns surrounding human trafficking. Uganda typically dispatched approximately 2,000 housemaids to the Middle East each month, totaling around 24,000 migrants annually.

Over the period from 2016 to 2022, statistics from the ministry indicate that a total of 223,102 individuals, encompassing both domestic and professional migrant workers, left the country for the Middle East. However, these figures do not fully capture the extent of the issue, as they do not include Ugandans trafficked into the Middle East.

Of the total migrant workers, only 32,876 are engaged in professional occupations, highlighting the prevalence of domestic work among Ugandan migrants. Notably, Saudi Arabia hosts the majority of these domestic workers, with 131,970 individuals, followed by the UAE with 45,636, and Qatar with 12,620 workers. These statistics underscore the significant reliance on Middle Eastern countries as destinations for Ugandan migrant workers, particularly in the domestic sector.

MAIDS SPEAK

Emma Mbura, a former Kenyan senator, highlighted the widespread nature of the issue, stating, “It is not only Ugandans who go to the Middle East; there are girls from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, the Philippines, and all over the world. They are trafficked through Porous border points. They don’t go there as refugees, but they travel to work.”

Reflecting on her own experience as a domestic worker in the Middle East, she shared, “I used to work at the UEA as a maid, and I used to see how domestic workers were treated. They used to work for years without pay, and they were not allowed to go home. They were beaten and sexually abused, and some of them were raped. It was inhuman. The day I was sworn in as a senator, is when the battle started.”

Speaking on the desperation that often drives individuals to seek work abroad, she added, “I didn’t decide to go to the Middle East, but I had no choice. My husband had no job but had children to feed, and that was the only option. If you have a good family, you are lucky, but I can’t advise anybody to work in the Middle East; that is the last place women can decide to go.”

Another maid shared her harrowing experience, stating, “I have been patient, but they have not paid me. My husband died last year while I was stuck here. My children are suffering back home. I am not able to send them money. My employer locked me up. I had to pay him before he could let me travel.”

The challenges extend beyond the Middle East, with the Gulf region also posing significant risks.

As highlighted, “It is not only the Middle East but also the Gulf. If you walk on the streets without legal documents, you get arrested. It is estimated that more than 10,000 maids escape from Saudi Arabia every year.”

Many girls are promised lucrative jobs in sectors like restaurants and supermarkets, only to find themselves working as housemaids under exploitative conditions. Despite assurances of reasonable work hours and wages, they often face grueling schedules, earning less than promised or sometimes not receiving any payment at all.

Former housemaid Mwanaharusi Juma Hakio’s tragic story exemplifies the severe toll of such exploitation. After working for four years in Saudi Arabia, she mysteriously lost her ability to speak and communicate, a devastating consequence of the abuse and neglect she endured while abroad.

SCAMMERS AT PLAY

Several individuals have come forward with complaints regarding fraudulent practices by various labor recruitment agencies in Uganda. One complainant, known only as Mark, recounted his experience with an agent named Shadia, who operates offices on Salama road. Mark paid Shs 5.5 million to process his wife’s visa to Poland, with an agreement to settle the balance of Shs 3.5 million after visa processing.

However, a year later, there has been no progress, and Shadia continually cites delays in setting up the visa appointment in Nairobi. Despite requests for a refund, Shadia claims to have already paid $1,000 for the work permit. Another individual highlighted a similar scam involving a company initially named FORWARD Limited, which later changed its name to RIZIQ after defrauding numerous Ugandans.

Situated in Namuwongo, this company deceives clients by claiming that all funds were exhausted in the visa application process, leaving no balance for refunds. The Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA) revealed that FORWARD Limited had been delicensed, and its directors are now facing legal action.

Furthermore, a separate victim recounted dealings with a company based in Mulago, which promised swift employment abroad but relentlessly solicited money without fulfilling its promises. This individual expressed frustration over the loss of borrowed funds and the failure to achieve the intended goal.

In another case, a labor recruitment agency operating in Kabalagala purportedly affiliated with government officials in the ministry of Defense defrauded young men seeking security jobs in the Middle East. Despite collecting significant sums, around Shs 3.5 million per individual, these men were never deployed. Attempts to obtain refunds or retrieve passports were met with resistance, with some coerced into signing waivers relinquishing their claims.

Another victim shared a similar ordeal involving a labor export company in Namasuba, where the proprietor engages in deception by advertising non-existent jobs in the Middle East, particularly Qatar. After collecting payments from numerous individuals, the company changes its name, making it challenging for victims to seek legal recourse.

These accounts highlight the pervasive nature of fraudulent practices within the labor recruitment industry in Uganda, underscoring the need for heightened oversight and accountability to protect vulnerable job seekers from exploitation and financial loss.

AGENTS SPEAK

Moher Doumit, an agent operating in the Middle East, shed light on the practice of confiscating passports from domestic workers, attributing it to the substantial financial investments made by sponsors in the recruitment and transportation process.

Doumit articulated the rationale behind the harsh treatment of maids by some employers, stating, “The maids travel to earn money; they say yes to their employers, and that is why you treat them in an inhumane way. There is respect, and there are red lines they can’t pass. I don’t think human rights exist in this world; they may exist in Europe, but not in the Middle East. I will not stop this business because I am helping myself and other people.”

Expressing frustration with the lack of legal recourse and respect for regulations in the region, Doumit emphasized, “In this field, you don’t trust anyone because there is no law in the Middle East. These countries don’t respect the law. Everyone wants money, and I am not getting the profits that I deserve. I should work in other countries to make my business bigger than this. I have agents in various African countries; God gives me work.”

Doumit’s statements provide insight into the complex dynamics and motivations driving labor recruitment practices in the Middle East, highlighting the absence of adequate legal protections for migrant workers and the pervasive focus on financial gain within the industry.

REMITTANCES

In the last fiscal year, Kenya experienced a significant increase in remittances from Saudi Arabia, reaching $337.8 million. This surge positioned Saudi Arabia as the second-largest source of remittances for Kenya, trailing only behind the United States, which accounted for $2.1 billion of the total remittances.

Similarly, Uganda benefits from substantial remittance inflows, with migrant workers contributing significantly to the national economy. Annually, Uganda collects approximately US$1.2 billion globally, with $600 million (equivalent to Shs 2.2 trillion) originating from migrant labor in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia being the primary contributor.

According to the World Bank, remittances play a vital role in the economies of developing countries, with an estimated $429 billion remitted globally in 2016, evenly split between contributions from both women and men. In addition to direct remittances from migrant workers, governments also benefit from fees levied on employers in destination countries.

For instance, Uganda charges $30 per job placement, generating significant revenue for the government. Between January and June 2022 alone, these fees amounted to Shs 12 billion, according to the ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of remittances to the Ugandan economy was underscored by Finance minister Matia Kasaija.

In 2022, remittances totalled $1.3 billion, a notable increase from the $1.1 billion recorded the previous year, demonstrating the critical role remittances play in sustaining the country’s economy during challenging times.

TORTURE

Mary Kibwana tragically suffered severe burns while working at her employer’s home in Jordan. With 100% burns on her hands and 47% on other parts of her body, the extent of her injuries was grave. Reports indicate that Kibwana, a mother of four, was injured when a gas explosion occurred in the kitchen.

Upon her employer’s return, Kibwana allegedly faced further mistreatment, being kicked and beaten. Despite the gravity of her injuries, she returned home without her salary and with little hope of receiving compensation. Mozen Al-Hindawi, the manager of Rakan Hindawi Recruitment Agency, the company that facilitated Kibwana’s employment, stated that he learned about Kibwana’s accident and hospitalization in Jordan.

He mentioned, “The police investigated and said it was an accident. The employer tried to put out a fire, called the ambulance, and paid the hospital bills in Jordan.”

However, he admitted that he did not inform Kibwana’s family of the incident. Tragically, Kibwana succumbed to her injuries at Kenyatta hospital in Kenya. Al-Hindawi explained that Kibwana had health insurance coverage in Jordan, but because she passed away in Kenya, her family could not receive compensation.

This case underscores the vulnerability of migrant workers abroad, particularly domestic workers, who often face hazardous working conditions and inadequate protections. It also highlights the challenges of obtaining justice and compensation when incidents occur in foreign countries, leaving workers and their families without recourse.

Jesicca Nduga Musili and Josephine Awanjiru Wambui, both former domestic workers, recounted harrowing experiences of sexual harassment and assault while employed in private residences. Musili described an encounter with her male employer who propositioned her for sexual relations.

Despite her rejection, he insisted, citing her presence in his house as justification for his demands. Feeling trapped and desperate, Musili resorted to a perilous escape, using bed sheets to lower herself from the third floor to the first, preferring the risk of injury to enduring further abuse.

Similarly, Wambui faced sexual harassment when her employer invaded her privacy by forcibly entering her bathroom. Despite her protests, he disregarded her boundaries, leaving her feeling violated and vulnerable. Overwhelmed by fear and trauma, Wambui fled the situation without taking any belongings, solely focused on escaping the threat to her safety.

Both women expressed the profound psychological toll of their ordeals, with Musili admitting she would have preferred death over enduring continued suffering. Wambui echoed the sentiment, reflecting on the enduring trauma of her experience and expressing gratitude for her survival.

These accounts shed light on the pervasive issue of sexual harassment and assault faced by domestic workers, highlighting the need for greater protections and accountability within the employment sector. Such experiences not only inflict immediate harm but also leave lasting emotional scars, underscoring the urgent need for systemic reforms to safeguard the rights and dignity of vulnerable workers.

DEATHS AND INJURIES

Between 2019 and 2023, Uganda recorded a total of 88 deaths among migrant workers, as reported by the Gender ministry. The majority of these fatalities occurred in Saudi Arabia, with 69 deaths, making it the country with the highest number of recorded deaths. Following Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan reported five deaths each, while Somalia had three deaths. Additionally, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain each recorded two deaths.

However, tracking of illegal trafficking and deaths in Jordan ceased after the suspension of operations in that country. Regarding work- related injuries, only seven cases have been documented since 2019, with five occurring in Saudi Arabia and two in Iraq. In a related context, concerning Kenyan migrant workers, at least 89 deaths were reported in Saudi Arabia between 2020 and 2021. Among these fatalities, two were domestic workers.

These statistics underscore the significant risks and challenges faced by migrant workers, particularly in terms of workplace safety and protection of their rights. The disparities in reported fatalities among different countries highlight the need for comprehensive monitoring and support mechanisms to ensure the well-being and security of migrant workers abroad.

STAKEHOLDERS REACT

Abdallah Kayode, the executive director of Migrant Worker’s Voice, raised alarming concerns regarding the exploitation and abuse prevalent within government labor recruitment systems, characterizing them as breeding grounds for “naked slavery” and “systemic human trafficking.”

He identified the Kafala system as a central component of these labor recruitment mechanisms. Originally devised to regulate employer-employee relationships, the Kafala system has been manipulated to trap workers in a state of dependency, stripping them of basic freedoms such as the ability to change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s consent.

This environment of coercion creates fertile ground for exploitation and abuse. Highlighting the absence of social order and justice within these systems, Kayode lamented governments’ complicity in perpetuating cycles of exploitation. He criticized the exclusion of migrant workers from policy formulation and decision-making processes, resulting in legal frameworks that fail to hold abusive employers accountable.

The resulting vulnerability of workers mirrors the plight of traditional human trafficking victims. He called for global attention and collective action to dismantle the Kafala system, emphasizing the imperative of upholding justice and safeguarding the rights and dignity of all workers, irrespective of their migration status.

In response to these concerns, the Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA) advised Ugandans to exercise caution when dealing with recruitment agents. They emphasized the importance of confirming an agent’s affiliation with a licensed company and ensuring that payments are made directly to the licensed entity, accompanied by the issuance of a receipt for transparency and security.

While acknowledging the challenges inherent in the recruitment sector, UAERA underscored its significant contributions, particularly in providing opportunities for disillusioned youth. They called for constructive dialogue among stakeholders to address sectoral challenges effectively.

Additionally, UAERA emphasized the patience required in the deployment process, acknowledging that delays and frustrations are common. They emphasized the importance of understanding and resilience in navigating the complexities of recruitment and deployment procedures.

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