KAMPALA, Uganda – Brenda Ayesiga and Eseza Tumwebaze have heard stories of slavery, torture, rape and even death inflicted on domestic workers by employers in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. But now that Uganda is partially lifting a ban on deploying maids to the Middle East, they are determined to go and work in either of the countries where the ban is lifted – Jordan or Saudi Arabia.
Ayesiga, 26, and Tumwebaze, 24, are confident that they can avoid the terrifying experiences others have encountered and are ready to depart for work once they obtain approval from Uganda’s Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.
“I will be safe when I reach an Arab home I will be working in because I am going to the Middle East through an external recruitment agency with approval from the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development,” Ayesiga says.
Although the women believe they will be safe, some domestic workers who have returned from Saudi Arabia say abuse there by employers will never stop despite the government’s efforts to demand safety for its citizens working in Arab homes.
Uganda banned its citizens from taking jobs as domestic workers in the Middle East in January 2016 after reports of mistreatment surfaced on the internet. It partially lifted the ban in March and will now allow workers to be recruited for jobs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Martin Wandera, director of labor, employment and occupational safety and health at the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, says the ban was implemented after relatives reported sexual abuse, slavery and beatings of Ugandan women by individual household employers in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.
“Many video and audio clips circulated on social media depicting Ugandans being abused, some calling for [the] government to come to their rescue. This forced the government to put a ban on exportation of domestic workers to the Middle East,” he says.
The nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch reports charges of abuses in Saudi Arabia, where some 9 million migrant workers were employed in 2016.
“Domestic workers, predominantly women, faced a range of abuses including overwork, forced confinement, non-payment of wages, food deprivation and psychological, physical and sexual abuse without the authorities holding their employers to account,” the group’s World Report 2017 reads. Further, it said workers who attempted to report abuses “sometimes faced prosecution based on counterclaims of theft, ‘black magic’ or ‘sorcery.’”
Wandera says Uganda’s ban didn’t stop youth from going to work in Saudi Arabia or other Middle East nations.
“With the ban in place, our expectations were that girls would be discouraged to seek maid employment in the Middle East,” he says. However, young women looking for employment continued to illegally migrate, trafficked to the Middle East through the Ugandan-Kenyan border town of Malaba.
“So the government decided that we can’t stop people from migrating, but we can set up policies that would ensure proper maid labor exportation to [the] Middle East,” Wandera says.
The agreements, signed with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, ensure that no domestic worker will be legally deployed without first going through a ministry-approved licensed recruitment agency, he says. More than 60 agencies are now registered and approved by the ministry, he says.
The Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies, an association of 52 agencies licensed by the government to recruit laborers for the Middle East, says that in the past nine years more than 65,000 Ugandans have worked in the Middle East as casual laborers, employed as cleaners, drivers and security guards, among other roles.
Ugandan workers have annually remitted about $400 million from the Middle East back home – about 40 percent of remittances from all over the world to Uganda, says Edin Nabunya, the group’s executive director.
Nabunya says when domestic workers go through a recruitment agency, they will be safe because recruitment agencies deploy, manage and supervise workers under dedicated contracts in the destination country.
Local recruitment agencies work with recruitment agencies in Middle East nations for job placements, she says. “When domestic workers are placed in a Middle Eastern home, we [will] visit them to monitor the conditions in which they work, we also encourage workers to speak out when they are abused and then we take action,” she says.
That was not the situation for Sumayiya Nabatanzi, 28, who returned to Uganda in February 2017 after working in Saudi Arabia for a year. She says lifting the ban and putting new policies in place will not prevent abuse.
“It doesn’t matter if one was trafficked or went through a recruitment company,” Nabatanzi says. For those traveling to Saudi Arabia or other countries for jobs, she advises keeping notes to record any abuse and making copies of contracts to keep with trusted friends. After her experience there, she says she would never return to work in the Middle East.
Peace Adyeri had a better experience. She worked in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for one and a half years until she was forced to come back when Uganda initiated the ban. Now that it is lifted, she wants to go back because she wants to work. She says she had a good relationship with her employers.
“I never witnessed any violence in the household,” she says. “I was obedient and did my work very well.”
For Ayesiga, she expects that the $250 per month will enable her to raise enough money over the two-year period she will be working there to take care of her two-year-old daughter and to buy a piece of land to construct a home.
“I can’t make such an amount here in Uganda, so working in the Middle East will provide me with the chance to achieve my financial ambitions,” she says.
Nakisanze Segawa, Global Press Journal reporter, translated some interviews from Luganda.