If Uganda was a normal country, the most important discourse today should be about labour export and job seekers who have been telling horrific tales of mistreatment and torture at the hands of their masters in the Middle East. Some have suffered death, and therefore cannot tell their ordeals.
A debate on labour export reached Parliament, through Mukono Municipality legislator Betty Nambooze. Parliament has also in the past investigated claims of torture of Ugandan labour seekers in Middle East. However, the House did not seem to put enough attention on the subject.
It is not an easy topic to introduce a subject which has many interested stakeholders such as labour exporters, but also people yearning to fly out in search of greener pastures – clearly both groups are driven by economic interests. Matters of bread and butter are not that easy – which explains the fireworks going Nambooze’s way.
I have in the past interviewed people who have worked in Iraq or Afghanistan, the two countries that kickstarted the business of labour export in the early 2000s. They told me stories – actually largely complained about the agents who shortchange them and made them signed bad contracts. These were largely security guards at installments of American defense walls after wards in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wrote about that in the early days of this website.
However, I also have friends who have worked and seem to be enjoying their tours of duty despite leaving families and friends behind for too long.
With the opening up of domestic labour markets in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman among other countries, several companies have opened their doors, and cashing on this new “human labour economy”.
To be fair to the government, the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development has this time invested a lot of effort to educate both firms engaged in the business and Ugandans aspiring for labour in Middle East, on what to look out for. There are also countries that have signed agreements with Uganda to that effect.
However, there is a growing black-market riding at the back of this business. Girls especially are smuggled, and in the past through Kenya, and are taken to Oman where they have suffered immeasurable humiliation and indignity. They have been beaten, sexually molested, kept in isolation, among other things.
Some of the girls have made alarms. Others have kept their silence.
For most of this week, Ms Nambooze has been speaking for a girl she says has suffered but survived the indignity. Some people have come out to criticize her, while others have applauded her strong stance on the matter.
Whereas it is true there is a huge shortage of jobs in the country, which our government must address, we should also take interest in ensuring the safety of any Ugandan who wants to work abroad.
Ugandans themselves should learn to follow rightful channels before sneaking out of the country. Whereas our country doesn’t have missions in every country in the world, it is important to register with the embassy at least for countries we have representation. That would be a safety measure if you sound an alarm when something awful happens to you.
Speaking to owners of companies that export labour, I have also received another perception on the subject. There are Ugandans who are simply alarmists. With more than 100,000 Ugandans in the Middle East, they argue the proportion of people complaining over mistreatment is not something to worry about since that mistreatment varies from individual families and not the norm.
My appeal to labour exporters is to ensure that a proper background check is made on families they attach housemaids before supplying the girls. And more importantly, to put families of maids in contact with their bosses, to ensure they in close contact.
Otherwise, in this day and age, slave trade or human trafficking should not be a thing to talk about, and bosses who torture their workers should be reprimanded strongly, either using domestic or international labour laws and courts, in case one does comply.
And this returns me to Nambooze, the discussion should not be demonise or praise her, but, together as a country, to come up with actual mechanisms whereby our people can go and work abroad without undergoing inhumane treatments. We should embrace this discourse because it is meant for good and it can bring about positive results. A win-win for companies dealing in labour export, and people who are willing to sell their labour abroad.