Missing Ugandan Maid Fuels Fears of Abuse in Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia is a popular destination for thousands of Africans who want to travel there in search of better work opportunities. The government in Uganda banned its citizens from traveling to the kingdom to work as domestic workers after the local media reported cases of abuse and mistreatment. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Yasin Kakande

KAMPALA, April 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Jannat Mubiru has heard nothing from her daughter since the 27-year-old called to say she had arrived safely in Riyadh, where she was due to start work as a maid five months ago.

Mubiru has repeatedly phoned the Saudi number her daughter, Shamim Nakitende, used but her calls went unanswered at first, and then were blocked.

“There are so many stories of Ugandans being mistreated in Saudi Arabia. I am so worried,” Mubiru told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Shamim left behind a daughter and son and it’s difficult to answer their daily questions about their mother without knowing if she is still alive or not,” she added.

Since Nakitende left, the company which had offered her work in Saudi Arabia has closed its external recruitment department and severed links with the unit’s director over violations of recruitment guidelines, Mubiru said.

More than 10,000 Ugandans are estimated to be working in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait as security guards, domestic workers, drivers and cashiers in supermarkets and fast food restaurants.

In January, the Ugandan government announced a ban with immediate effect on the recruitment of Ugandans as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, after the local media reported cases of abuse and mistreatment.

Despite the ban, the recruitment of Ugandans to work in the oil-rich Gulf states is still flourishing as agents prey on jobless youths in the east African country eager for adventure, overseas travel and the promise of a good salary.

Minister of Gender, Labor and Social Welfare Muruli Mukasa said the government had received many complaints of exploitation from workers in the Gulf – including having their passports confiscated on arrival and being made to work 12 hours a day or more, sometimes without enough to eat.

Some also reported having their salaries withheld and being subjected to verbal abuse, physical assault, threats and intimidation by their employers.

Thomson Reuters Foundation asked Saudi embassy officials to respond but they declined to comment.

UNSCRUPULOUS AGENTS

Some Ugandans said they were deceived as to the nature and income of their promised jobs by recruitment companies, though these were licensed and vetted by the authorities.

The same agencies sometimes took money from both the prospective employer and the migrant worker to cover recruitment fees, the cost of a visa and the air fare, workers said.

“An Arab employer who has paid these exorbitant fees, believes he or she just bought you. In other words you are his slave with no rights whatsoever,” said Ramla Nakazibwe, who returned from the UAE in January, her dream in tatters.

Nakazibwe used a licensed recruitment agency to find her a job in the UAE, spending 6 million shillings ($1,800) on fees.

Instead of working in a supermarket as she was promised, she was given a cleaner’s job which paid only 600 dirhams ($160) a month.

President Yoweri Museveni’s government is trying to raise awareness of the risks of being trafficked abroad, using a TV campaign urging Ugandans to be careful about overseas job offers, said Moses Binoga, national coordinator for the interior ministry’s anti-trafficking task force.

TOUGHER PENALTIES FOR UNLICENSED AGENTS

He said his task force was lobbying government for a review of 2005 guidelines on the export of labor, seeking tougher penalties for recruitment agents working without a licence.

“The government should also be urged to develop international agreements (extradition treaties) with the Middle East countries so that those who exploit Ugandans can face justice also,” Binoga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Theopista Nabulya, a member of parliament representing exploited workers, said her group had asked the government to stop licensing recruitment companies unless a proper system was in place to protect migrant workers’ rights.

She said she had visited Ugandans in most of the Gulf Arab states between 2011 and 2015, and found that most of them had been duped at some point during the process.

Some of the worst exploitation involved women who had escaped from their employers and ended up as sex workers in Dubai, she said.

“There’s an opportunity to arrive at the same results (of getting Ugandan jobs in the Gulf) by making the process cleaner and more ethical, without preventing Ugandans from migration,” Nabulya told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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