Ugandans risk more than exorbitant recruitment fees in seeking employment in the GCC

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Recently minted labor agreements provide Ugandans with opportunities for work in the Gulf, but with little protection at home or abroad.

Oct 17 2015

Yasin Kakande is the author of the forthcoming book, Slave States: The Practice of Kafala in the Gulf Arab Region.

Recently, I attended a recruitment session at the Middle East Consultants Ltd. in Muyenga, a suburb of Kampala. The company is one of the leading government-licensed recruitment companies in Uganda. Some 400 men between the ages of 21 and 45 were briefed and interviewed about job prospects in the Middle East as security guards, taxi drivers and nurses.

During the first briefing, the presenter highlighted the company’s success stories –  of Ugandan men and women who allegedly minted millions in the UAE and other Gulf Arab countries. Each recruit was reminded to pay fees for registration and medical examination, totaling 210,000 Ugandan shillings (approximately US$57). The medical examinations are GCC mandated, including testing for HIV/AIDS and other illnesses that could bar foreigners from entering the GCC. Recruits also undergo and pay for additional medical tests on arrival in the country of employment. Once they pay the fees and complete the testing, the recruits continue with the interview process.

The presenter, as expected, did not warn their clients about the exploitative labor conditions they are likely to face in the GCC -  such as work days that stretch to 12 hours or longer, the confiscation of their passports on arrival, unpaid salaries, inadequate food, denial of vacation benefits, forced confinement in the house or at work places for women, and threats and intimidation from Gulf employers. The presenter took care not to frighten female clients about working conditions in Saudi Arabia, where they would often be denied communication with family members in their home countries and are likely vulnerable to abuse because of their extreme isolation. They were not told that the only feasible way to report abuses or assaults would be to escape from the employer, thereby becoming an ‘illegal’  or undocumented migrant who would be hunted down by authorities.

Costs of recruitment

The recruitment company required successful candidates to pay for an airline ticket and visa in US dollars, as the value of Ugandan shillings is hardly desirable. Candidates going to Abu Dhabi are expected to pay higher fees, as salaries are typically higher than in Dubai.

Regardless of destination: the price is steep for any Ugandan for the opportunity to work in one of the world’s richest economies: US$1,750 for Abu Dhabi and US$1,450 for Dubai.

However, the fees do not end there. One must pay 300,000 Ugandan shillings (US$ 81) for verification of academic documents, 75,000 (US$ 20) for an Interpol certificate, 30,000 (US$ 8) for a discharge or company certificate, and 5,000(US$1.36) for a CV or resume. Keep in mind, Uganda in the best possible economic circumstances might achieve a per capita income of under US$1,300 by the end of the decade.

Almost every legislative mandate in the GCC requires the employer, not the employee, to bear the costs of recruitment. Charging workers such exorbitant fees in their home countries violates the rules. However, the breach is seldom investigated by either sending or receiving countries.

Most recruiting companies exploit workers’ ignorance and charge them fees, while also charging  employers. This double charging practice has triggered a major dispute between Arab employers and their Ugandan workers because once they arrive in GCC, their employers insist the unsuspecting worker reimburse these fees in case they wish to cancel the employment contract.

Agreement with Saudi

Last month, the Ugandan government agreed to supply millions of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia   in order to cover the human resources shortages caused by bans on migrants from countries such as Ethiopia, Indonesia and Philippines. Countries like cash-strapped Uganda are desperate enough to sign these unfavorable deals without considering the potential implications of human trafficking in the midst of Gulf’s labor rights crisis. Once the cycle begins, it becomes hopelessly irreversible. However the government is not signing these contracts with the long-term wellbeing of their people in mind. In fact, the Ugandan parliament earlier sought to formally cancel the contract, but the government’s executive branch ignored the resolution.

Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of parliament, last week asked the government to explain its rationale and cancel the agreement.  Kadaga’s request came last week as legislators heard harrowing tales of Ugandan women who had escaped from their employers in Dubai and ended up as sex slaves. Kadaga, who has consistently criticized the exporting of Ugandan workers to the Middle East, earlier told parliament that slavery is still acceptable in the Arab world and it is Uganda’s obligation to protect young people from unknowingly signing up as victims

Despite the government’s aggressive posturing in securing migrant deals in the Middle East Ugandan officials avoid discussing the risks citizens face in Arab countries. Mwesigwa Rukutana, Ugandan state minister for labor, said in a recent interview that about 30 recruiting companies are licensed to place Ugandans in  jobs in the Middle East.

Rukutana said two problems compromise the integrity of the recruitment process: individuals purporting to be recruiting agents, and submission of fake contracts by some recruiting companies.

The Ugandan government, Rukutana explained, sanctioned stricter penalties for recruitment companies that violated the rules and has cited Uganda Veterans Service as an example. The service was deregistered following claims by some young women that they had been shrewdly recruited into sex slavery in Qatar without any concrete knowledge.

Last year’s US Department of State report on trafficking in persons found that some Ugandan migrant workers endured forced labour conditions while in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, even when recruited by licensed agencies. The report also criticized the Ugandan government for not fully complying with the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking.

In January, Henry Buwembo, 33, leaped from a high-rise building in a failed suicide bid. He said his recruiter deceived him about wages and working conditions Dubai.  Buwembo was carried to Rashid Hospital in Dubai where he was treated for broken limbs. Fred Enanga, the Uganda police spokesperson characterized the act as a crime, adding that Buwembo acted cowardly.

Buwembo’s case underscores the desperation of Ugandans who seek opportunities outside their country as their government fails terribly to create local jobs and the economy free falls.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East