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A Million Ugandans for Saudi Houses: What can we expect?

On August 22, 2015

Last Month, Saudi and Uganda signed a 5-year bilateral agreement that will see the recruitment of one million Ugandan domestic workers to the Gulf Kingdom. The agreement sets the minimum wage for Ugandan workers at 700 Riyals ($200) a month, lower than the minimum set for Filipino, Indian, and Bangladeshi domestic workers. While the agreement has received little attention in Saudi press, Ugandan media coverage indicates an unjustifiable optimism in Ugandan officials’ expectations of recruitment procedures and employment conditions in Saudi.

Muruli Mukasa, Uganda's Minister of Gender, Labor, and Social Development, told Uganda’s daily New Vision that the agreement sets a maximum 8-hour working day with paid overtime allowances and prohibits deductions from workers salaries. Moreover, the employer must provide a “return ticket, decent accommodation, official papers, health insurance, and transportation from and to work employers will also be required to facilitate the issuance of exit visas “for repatriation of the workers upon contract completion or in emergency.” However, employers still retain the power to issue and refuse to issue exit visas.

Mukasa promised that “the agreement will ensure that all Ugandans employed as domestic workers abroad are respected.”

Acclamation for the agreements comes far too hastily; though the cap on working hours aligns domestic worker’s labor rights with other workers rights, it may do little to change workers actual experiences. As domestic workers remain legally obligated to live in their employer’s households, they remain vulnerable to the unregulated will of their employers and isolated from recourse.

In addition to a $200 minimum wage, workers will receive “other benefits” and “paid overtime.” It is unclear what these other benefits are or what enforcement structure will insure timely payments and overtime compensation. Last February, Saudi Labor Ministry said they are studying the possibility of including domestic workers under the “wage protection system” which requires employers to deposit salaries to employees’ bank accounts. Without explicit enforcement mechanisms, these protections are little more than ink on paper.

Working Conditions

The agreement stipulates domestic workers receive “decent accommodation” but does not elaborate on size or privacy requirements. Across the Gulf,  maids are sometimes made to sleep on the floor in children’s rooms are otherwise not provided a room of their own. The agreement also interestingly speaks of “transportation from and to work” though domestic workers are legally forced to live at their sponsor’s household – it is unclear to what this article refers.

Another report from New Vision says the agreement obligates Saudi Arabia to “take full responsibility of the welfare of and rights of the workers with the law, including the establishment of a mechanism to provide 24-hour assistance to workers.”

Still, officials seem to unwittingly acknowledge that conditions for domestic workers are not ideal, assuring Ugandans that its educated, English-speaking citizens will soon be employed as “private pilots, domestic accounts staff, personnel doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, secretaries, security guards” and not only as  “private drivers and housemaids.”   The agreement currently applies to domestic workers only, but Uganda hopes other workers will be included in the future.

Uganda's unemployment problem is used to qualify the agreement’s limitations. “The initiative is to save Ugandans” said Pius Bigirimana, Secretary of Uganda’s Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development. This discourse of Saudi being a savior to workers from poor countries only means there’s more resistance to reforms that grant rights to migrants. The same discourse  is echoed in Saudi media, one local newspaper claiming that Uganda suffers an over 50% unemployment rate. In reality, The International Labor Organization estimates Uganda’s unemployment at less than 5%.

Last June, Saudi Arabia signed two domestic labor agreements with Djibouti and Niger, setting minimum wages at 750 riyals and 800 riyals respectively. Again,  few details were reported in local media, aside from requirements that workers receive medical checks, are trained, and have no criminal records. Maximum rates for the recruitment of workers from Uganda, Niger and Djibouti are set at 7,000 riyals.

Uganda is also holding “advanced discussions” with Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait to seal similar agreements.

Local Response

Rights activists and local media in Uganda have voiced their discontent with the agreement, accusing the government of exporting its educated youth as “modern day slaves” to Asian countries. They demanded that the government finds other channels to help unemployed youth. One columnist, David Omoding, called on officials “to first understand who domestic workers are and the nature of work they do.” He warns of the common violations committed against domestic workers such as “restricted mobility, lack privacy, non-payment of their meager wages, verbal, physical, sexual and psychological abuse and work long hours” emphasizing their rights to “timely payment, freedom of association and collective bargaining, right to leave, privacy, treatment with dignity, respect, maternity leave and work contract.” He concluded his call to the government with the advice to “slow down on this project.”  

The 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report by the US Department of State found Ugandan officials complicit in cases of human trafficking.

In response to the criticism, Uganda's ambassador in Saudi Arabia Rashid Semuddu clarified that the agreement does not specify that all workers will be college graduates but rather of “good education” and “English-speaking.” He added that Ugandans look forward to working in the Kingdom because it is the holy land for Muslims, something  Saudi Arabia capitalizes on in recruiting Muslim workers.