By Dennis Katungi
Hardly a week passes before we are treated to some drama of sorts regarding scenarios of Ugandans working in the Arab world. The most negative stories are from the Middle East. Immigrant workers have really had it rough, and it’s not just the girls, even the boys cry.
The social media advent has indeed made the world a ‘global village’. On a regular basis, I get messages inbox via Instagram, Facebook and E-mail requesting that ‘I bring this or that matter to the attention of the government or the people’ an interesting prospect for a writer.
One of the messages reads: ‘other countries have done it, Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh & Srilanka - their citizens are paid double what Africans get, they are allowed communication from when they arrive, take leave and travel back to visit families regularly, but for us, none of these applies. Our phones are confiscated on arrival if you want to take leave; they tell you to pay compensation for your time off, our bosses look at us as chattels. They use violence to enforce their will on us. We need protection’. The sender works for an Agency called AWASM in Saudi Arabia.
The government says it’s listening and acting. It signed a bilateral agreement on recruitment and employment of Ugandan migrant workers with Saudi Arabia in December 2017. Earlier, in November 2016, a bilateral was signed with the Kingdom of Jordan. On 26th June 2019, a memorandum of understanding on Manpower and Domestic worker protocols was signed with the Government of United Arab Emirates. The Emirates has been the largest destination for the bulk of Ugandan migrant workers in recent years.
On signing the MoU in Kampala a few weeks ago, the UAE Minister responsible for Labour, Hon. Thani Al Hamli told our officials: “I need 80,000 Ugandan Workers in the next 12 months”.
The situation remains in constant flow, with not much changing on the part of the Ugandan worker. Like any other developing country, Uganda has a young population and unemployment is still a major problem. Versatile, energetic, fairly well educated, Ugandans would rather roam the world in search of gainful employment than loiter the streets. It is of great concern that many graduates still walk the streets 3 or more years after graduation. One of them who visited my office recently has a degree in Quantitative Economics from Makerere University. There are many more like that on the streets.
The government did not study the trends in the labour export markets and prepare well before it started the labour externalization programme in 2005. This would have allowed for the building of a robust system to protect its citizens. The kind of protocols and bilateral agreements being undertaken now ought to have been endorsed prior to the advent of labour externalization. The private individuals or companies entrusted to export labour lacked proper guidelines from the start, and as such, followed capital, rather than the welfare of personnel.
Local companies do not sufficiently prepare workers to face the realities in the Arab world. They hide a lot of information and only tell these miserable youths that it’s all rosy out there. The companies must be compelled to operate liaison offices in the countries where they send workers. These should verify that the advertised jobs exist and check the veracity of contracts as well as the welfare of workers. Desperate people are left in the hands of unrelenting capitalists.
Preparation and training for job seekers are key. If the Government looks at remittances as a cash cow, it should invest in the human resource that will draw the dollar in. There are serious mindset problems – many young people are not resilient, have been used to free things, have no work experience, and complain a lot. If you thrust such workers to an employer with a lot of expectations, the result is disastrous. It would be helpful for would-be employees to be enlightened about Arab and Sharia Laws, and to know that they will be expected to work hard, manage time well and measure up to reasonable expectations.
Workers must not be deprived of communication gadgets e.g. phones as well as their passports on arrival. They should know how they get access to medical care, who they speak to in case of emergency and any other basic worker rights.
There should be a mechanism to check that what government signs up to is implemented and if not, remedial or enforcement actions should be well laid out and followed.
The writer works with Uganda Media Centre