Running from starvation and financial ruin, the number of jobless youths leaving the country to seek Middle Eastern household jobs has risen sharply, The Observer has learned, reaching as many as 2,000 per month. That makes a tally of about 24,000 migrants a year.
“These are sad statistics but true… There was a time, before the outbreak of Covid-19 when we would take about 3,000 domestic workers monthly to the Middle East. Now that travel restrictions are relaxed, the numbers have picked up. Between 1,500 and 2,000 migrant workers are leaving the country every month,” Lawrence Egulu, the commissioner in charge of Employment Services at the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development (MGLSD) said in a recent interview.
It is “unfortunate,” he said that the bulk of migrant workers is female, making up to 75 percent of housemaids in the Middle East. They make up the long queues at Entebbe International Airport every day enroute to the Middle East. Most of the unflattering images and videos on social media capture youths desperately walking to unknown territory in search of employment at all costs.
Statistics from the MGLSD show that from 2016 to date, at least 223,102 domestic and professional migrant workers have left the country for the Middle East. The figures don’t capture Ugandans trafficked into the Middle East. Of these, only 32,876 are engaged in professional jobs. Of the remaining 190, 226 domestic migrant workers, Saudi Arabia takes a lion’s share of 131,970 workers; UAE, 45,636; and Qatar, 12,620, workers.
Domestic workers earn between Shs 900,000 and Shs 1.2m. Despite the soaring cases of abuse of migrant workers, the numbers are climbing due to limited gainful employment opportunities for skilled and unskilled youths here. Loud public outcries over the abuse of Ugandan workers in the Middle East have forced the government to intervene.
Asked recently by a journalist at the Uganda Media Centre about reports of deaths of Ugandan workers in the Middle East, Dr Chris Baryomunsi, the minister for ICT and National Guidance, said that the cabinet had ordered the ministry of Gender to release a comprehensive report on the state of migrant workers in the Middle East. In our recent interview, Commissioner Egulu said most Ugandans hardly get professional jobs because job offers in the Middle East or Gulf Cooperation countries are domestic.
For Ugandan teachers, drivers, security experts, and plumbers searching for professional gigs, Egulu said, they have to pay dearly to secure them. That includes; an air ticket, passport, medical and visa expenses. Ugandan companies are charging up to Shs 7m for a professional job in the Middle East. Domestic workers don’t pay anything as long as they are willing to work as housemaids.
“To get domestic workers, a Ugandan recruitment company instead gets paid to look for workers. If a company in Saudi Arabia demands about 100 workers, they can pay between $1,000 and $1,300 depending on one’s negotiation. Since most Ugandan companies have no cash up front and the Saudi company is providing it, the business becomes more attractive – a reason why most Ugandans go for domestic jobs,” Egulu said.
Allan Asiimwe, the managing director of Alastar Company (U) Ltd, a labour recruitment agency, said it is less tedious to find casual jobs for Ugandans. Whereas professional jobs are always available, he said, the slots are often limited compared to jobs for unskilled and semi-skilled people. Without signed job contracts from external recruitment agencies, Ugandan companies can’t advertise any jobs.
“Uganda exports few professionals because we lack accreditation centers that meet the standards of most foreign countries. If we are to externalize professional nurses, teachers, or engineers, they need to travel to Nairobi (Kenya) for accreditation. This process requires some money, which many Ugandans cannot afford. Also, the professional jobs come once in a while and need a lot of patience yet Ugandans are hungry for work and money,” Asiimwe said.
“As a businessman, you will choose what works fast; whether you are taking graduates as housemaids, it’s business as long as they are comfortable with the job,” he added.
Saudi Arabia takes mainly drivers, housemaids, cleaners, teaching assistants, waiters, and waitresses while Qatar employs labourers, security guards, carpenters, cleaners, personal assistants, administrators, and waiters and waitresses. In the UAE, the most significant chunk are security guards, labourers, loaders and cleaners. It’s worth noting that the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Somalia don’t employ domestic workers.
GOVT TO BLAME
Commenting on the low uptake of professionals abroad, Egulu said the government is not aggressive.
“I think Ugandans have gone to school and the onus is on the government to be able to make deals with foreign countries. It is difficult for a Ugandan recruitment company to negotiate better for such big professional jobs. We, maybe, have government officials [meant to negotiate for these jobs] that have not been so much exposed to big labour markets in countries like Brazil, Japan, and Russia,” he said.
Egulu added: “The doors to foreign nations can be opened by the government through the ministry of Foreign Affairs. We are not doing great there with the existing bilateral relations with these countries.”
He insisted that there’s a need to expand the skills base beyond the Middle East because Uganda is not a country that prides itself on “exporting” domestic workers.
“We have been to school and one of the best countries in the region. A situation of war in the Middle East can wipe out every gain. Look…the USA has pulled out of Afghanistan and Iraq, something that fizzled out Ugandan employment opportunities in security. So, Ugandan ex-combatants who were running out lost just like that yet they had other skills,” he said.
Egulu also took a swipe at Ugandan envoys for not tapping into meaningful professional employment opportunities abroad.
“Our diplomats should not just go and shake hands in high-level meetings. Whenever an opportunity knocks, they must sit down and compare notes about job opportunities for professional Ugandans,” he said.
According to the 2020 World Bank second report on the state of the job market in Uganda, around 700,000 young people reach working age every year. This figure is expected to rise to an average of one million in the decade from 2030 to 2040.
“It is estimated that an additional 13 million workers will enter the job market by 2030. This and Uganda’s high dependence rate of 1:42 dependants per employed person mean Uganda has to raise labour productivity whilst increasing the number of jobs created to match the per capita income growth of other economies with low dependency,” reads the World Bank report.
In the Middle East, many Ugandan professionals get jobs without government assistance. The few who go through companies are employed as agricultural workers, administrators, teaching assistants, and technicians. Nurses, most of whom work in homes, provide palliative care to people who are terminally ill but not attached to major hospitals. On teaching jobs, a source who preferred anonymity, said people in the Middle East believe Ugandans are not skilled enough to teach their children.
“Our teachers are good but most schools in the Middle East have people from France, the Philippines, Kenyans, and West Africans. In Dubai alone, you must bribe human resource officers and agents to get professional jobs. For instance, you may be a graduate teacher in Uganda but end up as a kindergarten teacher or school bus/van attendant with a salary ranging from Shs 1.5m to Shs 2m,” the source said.
The source added that some recruitment companies in Uganda can scout for better professional jobs but fear being arrested. For instance, if a professional job goes for Shs 8m, clients can be asked to make initial deposits as they process their travel documents.
“However, some impatient clients end up reporting us to authorities if their visas take long or are rejected. Yet, this is the shortcut being used lately to get better jobs. You pay half and clear the balance when you reach your final destination,” the source said.
In this arrangement, some untrustworthy clients also fleece companies when they eventually settle on the job.According to a source at Uganda’s embassy in the UAE, the majority of Ugandans are into unskilled labour and professional jobs are typically taken up by Europeans and a few individuals from African countries like South Africa.
“Professional jobs are always available because we have IT experts working both here in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, nurses, and engineers working in the oil and gas industry. Ugandans have to position themselves and take up these opportunities whenever they come up,” the source said.
Currently, Uganda has one signed Bilateral Relations Agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for domestic workers. For Qatar, the agreement is in the final review stages for signing while that of the UAE is still under review. In Turkey, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait, negotiations to sign agreements are still ongoing yet an unknown number of Ugandans are employed in these countries. In Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, there are no signed agreements.
The agreements cover the working conditions of migrant workers including the provision of medical insurance, standard employment contracts, and agreeing to implement Ugandan laws in their countries. Uganda was also sending domestic workers to Jordan [about 30%] but the arrangement was suspended three years ago because of the incessant mistreatment of workers with limited remedial measures from authorities there.
As of June 13, 2022, there were 235 licensed private recruitment companies. Every two years, each company pays Shs 2m in license fees. Last year, the ministry of Gender suspended operations of 11 companies in line with Regulation 13 of The Employment (Recruitment of Uganda Migrant Workers) Regulations 2021. Some directors of the suspended companies have since unsuccessfully made efforts to appeal the ministry’s orders.
“When we listed the companies, they came back trying to appeal but they have not fulfilled the ministry requirements to date. For now, their operations remain illegal in Uganda until they put in place what was required of them. We don’t know about their existence,” a source at the ministry said.
The companies were found with forged training reports, renewal documents, accumulated refund claims from clients, forged Covid-19 results, and trafficking people, among others. From migrant workers, the government annually collects US$1.2bn globally – the Middle East alone sends in $600m. This money, wired directly to the Uganda Revenue Authority accounts, is collected from the Middle East-based recruitment companies that are charged $30 [about Shs 110,000] for each worker.
Egulu was concerned that whereas the Gender ministry brings in lots of remittances and non-tax revenue, funding remains a hindrance to the sector.
“We know how to generate this money for the government but we don’t see it. I would have loved to keep track of the girls and boys in the Middle East by establishing labour attaches in all those countries and distress centers, among others, but we are cash-strapped. This money goes to the treasury and we must negotiate to get it,” he said.
Egulu added: “We need to talk more with people in the ministry of Finance that the money you are using to fund other government projects, we contributed to it and deserve a share as the source. We must be entitled to 40 percent of the remittances because we know best how to generate more for you. These have been long proposals and discussions that have not yet materialized. These are dynamics in government and that’s where we are.”
With inadequate funds to support migrant workers, the distressed ones in Saudi Arabia can either report to the Ugandan embassy based in Riyadh or report to the Gender ministry through its recently developed online system. Alternatively, a worker can complain through a relative based in Uganda who in turn logins into the system to file a complaint or manually write the ministry through the permanent secretary.
From 2019 to date, Uganda has registered 88 deaths of migrant workers, according to the Gender ministry. Of these, Saudi Arabia has the highest number at 69. It is followed by the UAE and Jordan with five deaths each; Somalia with three, and Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain with two deaths each. Following the suspension of Jordan, the ministry no longer tracks the illegal trafficking of migrant workers and deaths in that country. On work-related injuries, only seven have been registered since 2019 in Saudi Arabia (five) and Iraq (two).
Some of the licensing requirements
• Company must be registered with URSB
• All shareholders and directors shall be Ugandans
• The company shall have a minimum authorized share capital of Shs 50m
• A Ugandan-based commercial bank guarantee of Shs 100m
• Non-refundable application fee of Shs 100,000
• Interpol certificates of good conduct for staff, directors, and shareholders
• License fee of Shs 2m every two years
• Individual income tax returns for the past year and tax clearance certificate
• Staff or board members must not be engaged in the travel or sales agency of an airline company.