As unemployment bites in the country, thousands of Ugandans have found their way to the Middle East, where they do odd jobs ranging from being housemaids to porters and watchmen, among others.
It has, therefore, become a lucrative business to set up companies that export this labour.
As of August 6, there were 101 registered companies allowed to export labour to the Middle East, united under their umbrella organisation Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agency (UAREA).
Apart from the registered companies, a number of individuals and unregistered companies also deal in the export of labour the Middle East.
Many of the workers end up in the United Arab Emirates (especially Dubai and Abu Dhabi), Qatar and Oman, although Ms Enid Nambuya, the executive director of UAREA, says Uganda has so far signed bilateral agreements for the export of labour with only Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Companies and individuals continue to smuggle Ugandans, especially those intending to work as housemaids, to destinations where a number of the workers get into trouble because it is lucrative for those who deal in the trade.
On Tuesday, September 25, for instance, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) at Entebbe airport stopped 29 females and one male from flying out to Oman, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Mr Kenneth Otim, the CAA principal public affairs officer, told Sunday Monitor that security at the airport, working with Fly Dubai airline, intercepted the group during the check-in process.
On being interviewed, Mr Otim said, many of the females claimed that they were travelling to meet close relatives working in the Middle East.
“Each of the girls used private means to the airport and they were travelling to the same destination. The racket behind their travel secretly processed passports and visas for their victims, luring them with promises of lucrative jobs in the Middle East,” Mr Otim said.
Ms Norah Amito, the officer-in-charge of criminal investigations at Entebbe Aviation Police, said the females were between the ages of 20 and 30 years, and had been drawn from the districts of Kampala, Wakiso, Jinja, Masaka, Kayunga, Buikwe, Nakaseke, Lwengo, Luwero, Kamuli, Rakai and Isingiro. Some had been sent their e-tickets and visas on WhatsApp and were to go and work as domestic servants.
About two weeks earlier, 52 Ugandan females who were suspected to have been smuggled into Kenya with the intention of trafficking them to Middle East countries were intercepted at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and handed over to the Ugandan authorities.
Manipulating the fees
To understand how labour agencies recruit workers and what they charge, we went undercover through a female we asked to present herself to different agencies as someone looking for an opportunity to work in the Middle East.
From our findings, many agencies overcharge the prospective employees and in some cases make them pay for things they shouldn’t be paying for.
The directorate of labour at the Ministry of Labour, Gender and Social Development, which licenses the agencies, for example, only permits a charge of Shs50,000 as registration fees.
However, some of the agencies our undercover female visited asked for Shs80,000 as registration fees.
At some of the agencies she visited, she was asked to pay Shs5,000 to have a CV that suits the requirements of the placement agency written for her.
Then the prospective employee is required to present a certificate of good conduct from Interpol before she is allowed to travel. The certificate officially costs Shs65,000, but all the agencies we visited charge Shs120,000.
The prospective migrant worker is then required to undergo medical tests, for which different agencies charge differently. The charges range between Shs160,000 and Shs212,500.
However, UAREA says that this is one of the fees that are already catered for by the agency in the Middle East, which are seeking to recruit the worker.
Our undercover female asked at the agencies which tests are required. The agents at the recruitment agencies said that is confidential information.
“You just go to the bank and pay, the doctor will come here and conduct the medical tests,” an employee at an agency in Rubaga on the outskirts of Kampala, said.
However, according to UAREA, the two official destinations Jordan and Saudi Arabia have designated facilities where the tests have to be carried out, one of them being Nakasero Hospital where scans are supposed to be done.
Connected to medical test is the Yellow Fever vaccination card. All the agencies our person visited charge Shs80,000 for it, but the official fee from Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) is Shs102,000. When we asked a woman already working in Oman where she got her Yellow Fever vaccination card from, she said:
“I paid the money and received the book from the agencies’ office. I didn’t know I had to be injected to get the book (she did not receive the vaccination).”
The intending migrant worker is then required to present citizenship letters, starting from LCI all the way to the district level.
The agencies ask for Shs50,000 to provide the letters, never mind where they come from. One need not present the letters. The money suffices and the agencies come up with the letters.
If one does not have a passport, the agencies our person visited ask for Shs350,000 to help the applicant acquire one. A passport officially costs Shs150,000.
These costs, we established, only apply to those who intend to work as maids. Maids are supposed to get paid between Shs800,000 and Shs850,000 a month when they get to their destinations.
For those who intend to do higher-paying jobs in the Middle East, the costs are significantly higher, although we were unable to get a breakdown.
A cleaner is required to invest at least Shs3.8m to get a job paying between Shs1m to Shs1.2m a month, while a waitress needs to inject in Shs5m to get a job paying Shs1.8 a month.
A cictim’s experience
We spoke to a woman who was taken to work in Oman by a recruiting agency based in Rubaga, Kampala, on a two-year contract but returned home after one year. She said:
“What I expected is not what I found. Maybe it is because I and other girls were just sneaked out of the country. In Oman where I was, Ugandan maids are at the mercy of their employers as there is no Ugandan diplomatic representation.
I think they use that understanding to mistreat us. I was in a group of six girls and we went through Kenya. Most, if not all those who go to Oman and Qatar are smuggled out through Kenya.
We left Kampala for Busia in a taxi, from where we used boda boda to enter Kenya through village paths, avoiding the boarder point. In Kenya, there was someone waiting to receive us.
They put us at some place and gave us food. As it was getting dark, we got ready to move but they first briefed us not to sit together or talk to each other. They brought a taxi and we boarded. We went and got other passengers on the way. We reached Nairobi in the early hours of the morning.
We went straight to the airport. At the airport, they seemed to have insiders. Our passports had been taken away from us before crossing into Kenya. At the airport, we were not like any other passengers.
We were told to wait not to join the queue of passengers. Although there were other free counters, they waited for a counter manned by a particular person, who signaled and they took our passports to him.
Our passports were not handled in the open like for other passengers. They were checked from under the desk, perhaps to avoid cameras.
When we got to Oman airport, someone was again waiting for us and took us to the company offices. Even there, we were not allowed to talk.
We were being rushed out of the car into the building as we were being told to hurry and avoid people seeing us.
From the office, we were picked one by one. I thought the man who picked me would be my boss, but after driving me for about six hours, he handed me over to my boss.
I was taken to a storied house in which lived eight people. The lady of the house was the worst.
She used to beat me and deny me breakfast. I was eating leftovers.
I resorted to stealing the food to eat.
My day would start when they woke up for the morning prayers around 4:30am and it would end at 1am, although most times it ended at 3am.
Desperate for home
Due to the mistreatment, I asked several times to be returned home but they refused. Then one day, I had just gone to bed when I was woken up that I was to be taken home.
I was scared, thinking they wanted to kill me because earlier on, I had had misunderstandings with my female boss because of the mistreatment.
They had my passport and had not paid me for some time. I demanded for my pay before I could leave the house. I was given less than I had worked for.
They said I had not completed the contract and they had to deduct the ticket fee. I was driven to the airport in the clothes I was sleeping in and was not allowed to pack anything.
While I was still in Oman, the agency that took me kept calling my mother, asking for money. They wanted a full month’s salary as their commission, and they kept telling her lies that they checked on me regularly and that I was fine.
Even the day before I returned, they had told her that I had sent her greetings and that I was fine.
But they had never talked to me since I had left. I didn’t go to complain to them when I returned as all they wanted was money.
The companies taking us to work in the Middle East are very deceptive.
The contracts we sign are not implemented. I signed to work for Shs800,000, but I was receiving Shs600,000. When I complained, my boss told me he bought me.
I believed him because the agency asks for full size photos, which are sent to Oman for the employers to make a choice of which person they want and then pay for her to go. They consider height, weight and size of the person.
I got no day off or sick leave contrary to what the contract said. Unless you are very sick, they will not take you to hospital. The only time I was allowed out of the compound was when I was taking out garbage.
The one year I was there was wasted because on return, I was very sick and spent four months on treatment and all the money I had saved was spent on medical bills.”