KAMPALA, Uganda – The Ugandan maid “crawled like a baby” from her bed on the living room floor of her employer’s house in Abha, Saudi Arabia. The 22-year-old was wracked with pain and too weak to walk after hauling heavy objects up three flights of stairs for 18 hours a day. But another day of hard labor awaited her inside the virtual prison.
She soaked her legs in cold water, then eventually forced herself to stand. “If I refused to work then they just abused [me],” says Grace, who did not want to use her real name. “Sometimes they spit on you and you cannot do anything.”
Seven days a week, without rest, she cleaned, cooked and cared for the family’s nine-year-old daughter. Grace was only paid her salary at the end of her two-year stay and it was less than she had been promised – the equivalent of about $213 per month. She returned home to Uganda in February this year, after repeated pleas to her employers to release her. At Entebbe airport, she fell into her mother’s arms and together they sobbed.
In June 2017, the Ugandan government lifted a ban on its citizens working in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, signing agreements with those countries to try to protect workers from abuse and exploitation. Under the agreements, maids should be entitled to agreed salaries, eight-hour work days with breaks and have access to their passports and phones, labor ministry official Milton Turyasima said.
“The purpose of the agreements was to improve the welfare of the workers and promote their rights,” Turyasima said. “[And] streamline the recruitment and deployment of those workers.” But for Grace, and dozens more in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, conditions did not improve.
“We continue to hear of reports of abuse that Ugandan workers continue to face,” says Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher with Human Rights Watch. “Uganda … has not developed strong protection mechanisms that may have an overall deterrent effect on employers and agencies from committing abuse.”
In the past decade, tens of thousands of Ugandans are estimated to have flocked to the Middle East, sending hundreds of millions of dollars from the region back home. Ugandans have been lured by the promise of well-paid work, to support family back home and fund an education. But widespread claims of exploitation and abuse prompted Uganda to ban its citizens from working in Jordan and Saudi Arabia in January 2016.
Now the Ugandan government says it’s tackling the problem by encouraging domestic workers to travel to Jordan and Saudi Arabia through government-approved, licensed recruitment agencies, so citizens can be monitored and educated on their rights.
But Turyasima recognizes that many Ugandans are still traveling to the Middle East through unregistered agencies. Some Ugandan women are unaware of the government agencies, and traffickers posing as official agencies are still recruiting women directly.
“When an agreement is signed it protects all Ugandans who are in that country,” says Turyasima. “If you have information about girls being mistreated, let those girls who have access to a phone inform the Ugandan embassy or ministry.”
But the reality is many domestic workers, like Grace, are denied access to their phones and passports. “I was tortured there. I couldn’t talk to anyone. Even if you feel bad, you cannot tell anyone,” Grace says. “Sometimes I thought I was going to lose my mind.”
What’s more, some of the rights and conditions Uganda is demanding for its workers in Saudi Arabia conflict with the Gulf nation’s laws, Begum says. While Uganda wants eight-hour work days for its citizens, Saudi Arabian law allows an employee to work for up to 15 hours. And if domestic workers escape an abusive employer and report them to authorities, they risk being charged with absconding. “There is very little enforcement of domestic workers rights [and] there are very few ways of them accessing justice,” Begum says.
Begum says Uganda should insist that Saudi Arabia force employers to register all workers with the Ugandan embassy, or face penalties. “Families will sometimes no longer hear from a Ugandan worker, at that point an embassy should find out what’s happened to her. Often that doesn’t happen,” Begum says. “There are so many cases where the families don’t know if they are alive.”
For nearly two years, Grace’s family in Uganda barely heard from her. They repeatedly called her employer, begging for her release. He would not – even after her contract ended. Then one day, Grace herself begged him to let her go, so she could return to Uganda to study. He finally agreed.
When she left, her employer and his wife asked for Grace’s forgiveness for the harm they had caused. “I do forgive them,” Grace says. “If God can forgive, why not a human being?”