Miners will tell you that the sector is both extremely lucrative and dangerous at the same time. Lucrative because they earn a lot of money from refined gold and other minerals but dangerous because mining takes place deep inside the ground and on some occasions the ground caves in burying miners deep inside the earth’s crust. This has however never swayed miners away from the trade and neither have they continued risking death without putting up a fight against the risks they face.
Like mining, our labour export, especially to the Middle East, is lucrative and fast becoming dangerous. Ironically Uganda’s first organized labour export was to war-ravaged and terrorist invested Afghanistan and Iraq and yet we never had major complaints of exploitation or mistreatment. It’s bizarre that now when we export labour to the peaceful Middle East is when hell breaks loose.
Uganda’s labour exports earned the country $1.2 billion in 2018 and half of these remittances $600 million were from the Middle East. This was an improvement from 2017 that brought in $1.16 billion. Such huge remittances are a result of the fact that the labour export sector is employing nearly one hundred thousand Ugandans in the Gulf area in particular majority of whom would not find jobs here at home. Many of these Ugandans have improved their lives greatly, paying fees for their children and siblings, built houses and started businesses.
However like I earlier illustrated in the mining example, labour export has challenges of its own. This year around April, a body of a young lady called Kezia Nalwanga was returned from Oman where she died of torture at the hands of her employers, another lady Doreen Magezi called Mukono Woman Member of Parliament Hon Betty Nambooze from Jordan complaining of torture asking to be rescued and over fifty girls are reported stranded at Uganda’s Embassy in Abu Dhabi having run away from their employers due to unbearable conditions.
Therefore, it’s clear that most of the complaints coming from the Middle East are from ladies with the most affected category being domestic related work. This shows that these ladies suffer at the hands of their employers as soon as they get behind the gates. It also shows that Uganda or any of the countries where these ladies get employed plus the companies that take them from here have no capacity to police the working conditions of these workers as soon as they are behind these mansion walls of their Arab employers.
Arabs historically have not shown Africans any love anyway so mistreating domestic workers of African origin will come to them easily. All these problems faced by Ugandans in this sector has prompted some members of parliament to call for either suspension or total ban of exporting labour. I find their call interestingly ridiculous because like I said earlier if miners quit because they were dying from collapsing mines, the world would be a miserable place with no phones, no cars and no electricity from cobalt, steel and copper respectively.
I would like to advise our members of parliament to help them streamline the labour export sector if they are not just politicking but serious about the plight of Ugandan workers. First, it’s clear that domestic work is the most if not only prone to abuse and exploitation especially physical related abuse. There is a need to put strict regulation on all labour export companies to control this particular category of employment, if the worse came to the worst, maybe it could simply get scrapped.
The second challenge is that some unlicensed companies are trafficking vulnerable women to the Middle East. Parliament should enact much more deterrent and strict laws for offenders like imprisonment for life for traffickers.
Ministry of gender should also team up with the media to sensitize Ugandans about the sector for example which companies to deal with, which countries have agreements with Uganda, and the safest placements. But suggesting that the entire sector be scrapped because one of its categories is being abused is anti-development. It’s like cutting off your leg because you have jiggers in your foot. You remove the jiggers instead no matter how painful the process is. These small critical adjustments will keep the economy earning healthy remittances, Ugandans employed meaningfully and our diplomatic relationships with Gulf countries cordial.
The writer is a Communications Assistant at Government Citizen Interaction Centre (GCIC), Ministry of ICT and National Guidance.