Opinion: Is the government doing enough to protect Ugandans working abroad?

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By Peter Kahindi

Uganda suffers from acutely high levels of unemployment, poverty and illiteracy. Inevitably, people will look out for all or any option(s) available for them both within and outside Uganda. On the other hand there is always a steady demand for workers in foreign countries and for the purposes of this opinion the Middle East. To this end many Ugandans have found it necessary to seek out ways of getting into countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. The combination of these country’s desire for cheap labour and the desperation to which most Ugandans find themselves in has led to a major exodus of labour towards the Middle East from some African countries.

This exodus has however not been without challenges, the biggest one by far being the abuse of human rights of the Ugandans who move to these foreign countries in search of a better living, and hopefully a better life in future.
In the last few years, both international and domestic media have been awash with reports of human rights abuses of Ugandan citizens working abroad. In fact as at 2014 it was reported by Rothna Begum, a Senior Researcher at the Women’s Rights Division of the Human Rights Watch published both on the Watch website and the Huffington Post (18th December 2015) that over two million four hundred domestic workers often faced abuse ranging from excessive working hours, lack of rest, passport confiscation, inadequate food, poor living conditions and well as physical and sexual abuse.

This level of abuse has forced the Ugandan government and indeed the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development to re-examine itself and find out what can best be done to insure that human rights abuse of Ugandan citizens working abroad is minimized and at best eliminated altogether. This has however faced a number of challenges as this article will explain shortly.

Some have argued that the current legal regime is hardly sufficient to decisively deal with the situation. In order to find out whether or not this argument has merit, we may inquire into what the Ministry responsible as indicated above has done to manage the crisis.

A set of requirements was set up at the Ministry of Gender to be fulfilled by entities which may be interested in establishing labor exporting services. These requirements were put in place in the week of so many Ugandans being wooed into going into the Middle East by con persons who simply defrauded the desperate Applicants. It would therefore follow that as soon as the Applicant would board a plane departing from Uganda heading towards a particular destination, the labour exporting expert would immediately cut all contact and vanish, leaving the labourer vulnerable to all manner of abuse to their new employer.

To avoid this, the Ministry came up with a list of requirements to be obtained before one is issued with a License to legally offer labour exporting services. In brief, an entity (mainly a Limited company or a Partnership) must be registered in Uganda, must demonstrate that it has minimum share capital of Sh. 50 million shillings, a running bank balance of at least Sh. 10 million shillings, must not be affiliated to any political and religious institution, must demonstrate proof of a legitimate connection with an international presence or entity, must have clearance from Interpol of all the members of its Board of Directors, must have verified financial statements, income tax returns for the previous two years, must have updated resumes of all its directors, must furnish proof of having publicized the Application, and must also have a bank guarantee of Sh. 50 million.

Some may argue that this list is too long as the procedures one has to undertake are too complex. However, many companies have in fact successfully applied for, and obtained Licenses. As of 30th July 2015 the list published on the Ministry’s website placed the Licensed companies with the government’s authority to export labour at 103.

In addition to the procedure for Licensing stated above, the government has also come up with Regulation enacted by the line Minister under the Employment Act – the Employment (Recruitment of Ugandan Migrant Workers Abroad ) Regulations. These Regulations are a fairly good attempt at addressing some of the challenges that the Uganda migrant workers were facing especially with regard to human rights abuse while abroad. Through these Regulations an elaborate process was laid out on the process of applying for a License, management of that process, treatment of Applicant before and during the Application and vetting process as well as after the Applicant has finally made it successfully. They also placed responsibilities on the recruitment Firms to constantly and regularly ensure that the person whom they sent abroad is not abused or subjected to any harsh condition while he or she is abroad. The Agencies are also required to provide medical insurance cover and further ensure that the employee enjoys minimum wage in their respective countries of deployment.

Whereas there is an Act and Regulations in place some have criticized the current legal regime that, without implementing bodies charged with the responsibilities of insuring that these provisions are implemented or enforced, then they will only remain shelved laws without any consequence.

For instance on the leading critics of the current legal regime is legislator Ms Anna Adeke Ebaju who, in her article published in the Independent Newspaper and titled Regulating the Labour Export Industry, she proposes an overhaul of the current Regulations. She proposed that Parliament should come up with a whole new law that will establish a Board, a Fund and a law that will concentrate on how to go about bilateral relationships with the countries that normally take in most of the labour from Uganda.

We agree with the Member of Parliament to the extent that more focus needs to be placed on bilateral relations than what has been accomplished so far. This is because most of these foreign countries do not have in place (or currently feel the need to have) legislation that will cater for the treatment of imported domestic labour. Secondly, the said foreign companies do not feel obliged to be bound by Acts of Parliament (or Regulations for that matter) arising from Uganda. In any case, it would be next to impossible to hold any suspect of rights abuse in Qatar for offences created under the Employment Act of Uganda.

Indeed, the fact that the above bilateral measures are possible has been tried and tested, with partial success. According to the Uganda Report on Human Rights Practice for the year 2016 which was submitted to the US Department of State, upon a realization by the Anti- Human Trafficking Task Force together the Ministry if Gender that there was widespread abuse of rights of Ugandans working in Saudi Arabia, Uganda banned the export of labour to that country, pending investigations into the source of the abuse and possible solutions.

Investigation revealed that in all cases involving the abuse of human rights, none of those workers had been recruited through a licensed agency. This in a way may show that may be the stringent procedure has positive outcomes eventually.

On a secondary level, we opine that this ban against Saudi Arabia may also have compelled the Saudi government to agree to enter a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ugandan government. Under this MOU, Uganda successfully negotiated for minimum wage ($200), health insurance and the compulsory availability of a return ticket. Further the observance of fundamental human rights and rights against issues like passport confiscation were also addressed. In fact one may be excused to assume that the Ugandan government did everything they possibly could to import most of the provisions of the Regulations into the MOU especially provisions that would ordinarily require the input of the foreign government.

Away from domestic regulation and a singular attempt at international agreements, it has, according a New Vision Report by John Agaba 13th April 2018, been reported the line Ministry recently implemented the External Employment Management Information System (EEMIS). That this system would be hosted at the National Information Technology Authority (NITA). This system is intended to make it much easier for the line Ministry to monitor and track Applications, track abuses and detect cases of potential but preventive abuses of rights by foreign employers. However, it would seem that this system is flawed on two levels; a) it does not take in consideration that the primary beneficiaries of the same may not know how to steer their way through a basic computer application, later on take advantage of an IT system to lodge a complaint or even inform any other person to do so on their behalf; b)it is not clear in terms of the laid out procedures how the abuses that will be detected by the system can actually be arrested in the foreign country in absence of very strict and respected bilateral relations; c) the link that is indicated on the Ministry website as the site where any aggrieved person may go to wit, http:www//eeemis.mglsd.go.ug is in fact empty and does not reveal anything.

Conclusively, the government has put up a fair attempt at regulating the exportation of labour as well as the fight against human rights abuse of Ugandans working abroad especially through domestic legislation and some courageous moves when faced with some so called powerful countries. However more emphasis needs to be placed on biltaral relations at the highest political level in order to get real results in the fight against abuse. Until then, our brothers and sisters are going abused in all manner of ways, with or without domestic regulation.

The Writer is the Managing Partner at PACE Advocates

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