“All of us who came through agencies have to put in money for the jobs, it is not free,” says Ben, a taxi driver. “If you do not have the money you have to get a loan from your friends or family or sell some property, like land if you have. My friend had to sell his family property to get the money for the job. Until now, he has not made the money to repay and reclaim family land he sold.”
As Ugandan migration to the GCC increased exponentially over the last decade, so have complaints of wage theft, contract substitution, and other forms of exploitation. Public pressure on the Ugandan government to protect workers has resulted in new recruitment regulations and bilateral agreements with destination countries. But enforcement both at origin and destination remains weak, exposing workers to high risks of debt bondage and related labour trafficking situations.
According to the immigration department at Entebbe International Airport, more young women than men leave Uganda for jobs in the GCC; female workers are primarily employed in the domestic and hospitality sectors whereas men are often employed in the security, cleaning, construction, transportation, and hospitality sectors.
The Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA) estimates that the number of Ugandans working in the region is estimated to be over 140,000. However, recent statistics indicate that the actual figures are likely much higher, with 500 Ugandans, mostly girls, travelling to the GCC mainly for domestic work every day, says Agnes Igoye, the Deputy Coordinator for Prevention of Trafficking in Persons in the Internal Affairs Ministry. In total, about 180,000 workers leave Uganda for the GCC every year in search of employment.
These statistics only include migrants who travelled through regular employment channels, and the actual population abroad is likely larger.
“Lately I have watched the news about the selling of human organs in the UAE and this has somehow scared me… I will be careful while there and I will keep in contact with friends all the time so that in case I suspect anything then I will report to the relevant authorities." – Adam
Role of agents
Though the government has cracked down on illegal recruitment agencies in recent years, workers say fraudulent practices are still commonplace. “Some agencies continue to work even after being banned by the government,” says Bashir, who works in Qatar as a cleaner. “The first agency I went to was closed and when I asked the askari (broker), he told me that the agency has moved. I called their number to get the new location, but the agent instead told me to meet him at a restaurant. I got scared that he could be a con man, so I decided to look for another agency.”
According to the UAERA, Uganda has over 200 registered agencies, which are known locally as External Recruitment Labour Agencies (ERLA). As part of its general mandate over Ugandan migrants, the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development (MoGLSD) is responsible for licensing, regulating, and monitoring ERLAs, as well as for signing bilateral agreements with host countries.
In response to growing complaints from workers, the MoGLSD amended the Rules and Regulations governing the recruitment and employment of Ugandan migrant workers abroad in 2021. Part Six notes that if a foreign agency pays for all costs associated with recruitment and deployment, the Ugandan agency cannot charge fees to workers. Otherwise, the regulations allow agencies to charge a standard administrative fee up to USh 20,000 (US$6), or “recruitment and placement” fees with no ceiling, but that should be approved by the Ministry and not paid by the worker until the employment contract is signed. The vague regulations leave considerable space for inflated fees, according to migrant workers, which are often paid before a job is guaranteed.
“No agency in Uganda can get you a job abroad for free, I paid USh 7,000,000 (US$ 1,978)” says Isma, who works in Qatar as a security guard. Some of my friends who used different agencies paid more. If you don’t have the money, you cannot get this job as a security guard because the agencies in Uganda tell you to pay fast before they get the job for you.”
“No agency in Uganda can get you a job abroad for free, I paid USh 7,000,000 (US$ 1,978)” – Isma
Job placement fees vary across agencies. According to our research, fees range between USh 2,000,000-USh 8,000,000 (US$559–US$2,237) and are paid after passing the interviews. “I had to look for an agency that asks for the smallest input for a cleaning job because I didn’t have enough money. I paid USh 1,700,000 (US$480),” says Sadam, who works in the UAE as a cleaner. “Other agencies were charging as much as USh 2.5 million (US$600),” he says.
Recruitment fees also depend on the employment sector. The average costs (US$) according to the workers we spoke to are as follows:
Security guard: $2237
General cleaners: $600
Airport cleaners; $600
Baggage handlers (airport staff): $600
Construction workers: $650
Domestic workers: $56
Agencies say they have to charge these fees to meet expenses incurred when securing job orders. “We don’t get these jobs for free, we have to get these job orders from the recruitment companies at our destination,” says Mercy, an employee of a local agency. Although employers are supposed to pay for visas and flights, agencies claim that visa processing is dependent on the commission and that they pay around US$500- $1000 per migrant worker to recruitment agencies abroad. “We have to first pay their commission to process any visas,” says David, another agency employee. Though employers are obligated to pay air tickets for migrant workers, this is not always the case.
Laws in many Gulf countries do require the employer to bear all recruitment costs, which include the air ticket and visa, but in practice oversight and enforcement remain weak. In many cases, these costs are passed down to migrant workers even when the employer does provide the funds.
“We don’t get these jobs for free, we have to get these job orders from the recruitment companies at our destination” – Mercy, recruitment agent
Modes of recruitment
The recruitment process can take two forms – direct and indirect. The former is when agencies in Uganda recruit directly for companies to place the workers on the job. There are no middlemen or agencies used in the destination country. The Ugandan agencies are commissioned by the employer for identifying the desired workforce.
Indirect recruitment is more common. Employers contract an agency or manpower supply company in the destination country. The agency abroad offers a job order to the ERLA, which will have to receive approval from the MoGLSD Under this modus operandi, agencies in Uganda will have to negotiate with their counterparts abroad.
“Job orders are accompanied by a fee we have to pay to agencies abroad, and the government knows that the jobs are not free,” according to another ERLA.
ERLAs also say the fees they charge workers are needed to meet other expenses including: operational, training and skilling, airport terminal transportation, certificate of experience, yellow fever vaccination, commission to agents abroad and Interviewer expenses. For some jobs, particularly in the security sector, the process also requires the employer to send an interviewer to assess the aptitude of prospective workers.
“It is our money that ERLAs use to pay for the interviewer’s flight and accommodation,” says Ali, who works in the UAE as a security guard. The interviewer does not pay for anything, it is the money we pay that he uses to come to interview us. After the interview, those who pass are told when to come back to start visa processing.”
The lack of clarity on what constitutes a migration expense versus what constitutes a recruitment expense ends up burdening aspiring migrant workers with all the costs. Neither destination nor origin countries itemise the costs of recruitment in order to assign responsibility to who pays it.
Furthermore, fees are inflated for a number of standard documents that workers must obtain. For instance, migrants seeking work as security guards are required by law to obtain a police clearance certificate to prove they do not have a criminal record. “We also had to pay a separate fee for processing the Interpol certificate,” says Paul, a migrant worker working as a security guard in the UAE. “The input money [recruitment fee] is different from the one of the Interpol certificate. If you do not pay for the Interpol certificate, the agency will not get you the job as a security guard.” The actual cost of the certificate is USh 64,300 (US$17). However, many ERLAs charge as high as USh120,000 (US$33).
Ugandan migrant workers must also pay medical fees ranging between Ush150,000-Ush200,000 (US$42-56) “No one is allowed to board the plane without a medical clearance certificate,” according to an ERLA staff member. COVID-19 testing fees are a new challenge, as all migrant workers must pay for a COVID-19 test irrespective of their vaccination status. “I was vaccinated but had to pay for a COVID-19 test again,” says Emma, a migrant worker in Qatar working as a cleaner. “If you do not have the negative results, you are not allowed to come on the plane and the agency does not refund your money.”
“Owners of agencies are living good lives from the money they steal from us,” says Jack, a migrant working as a security guard in Qatar. “We pay a lot of money to them because we want to go out of Uganda to work for ourselves.” Some ERLAs offer migrant workers job placements abroad on credit terms. “I didn’t have enough money, but the owner of the agency allowed me to pay the balance as I worked,” says Derick, who works as a waiter in the UAE. I had to pay him back with some small interest because he helped me get the job. If it was not for his help, I would not have this job.”
Though migrant workers consider this support useful, such arrangements can trap them in debt bondage, with many spending a sizable percentage of their salary repaying the loan, and unable to escape exploitative work situations. ”I paid the loan for my first year of the contract,” says Jimmy, who works as a security guard in the UAE. “All the money I got when I started working here, I was paying back to the agency. I could not send my family enough money, and I could not save what I wanted to buy land at home.”
Uganda’s Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act condemns people found guilty of trafficking to 10 years of imprisonment, or 15 years if the victim is a minor. The law in its current form does not regulate the fees paid by the prospective migrant workers, This law needs to be reviewed to include fees charged by ERLAS. “If the government can make better laws, those agencies will stop charging us a lot of money,” says Bossa, who works as an airport cleaner in Qatar. “But many agencies are mostly owned by people who are working in the government or those that have friends in the government, so they just care about making money and not our suffering.”
The MoGLSD has amended the Recruitment of Ugandan Migrant Workers Abroad Regulations, 2005 and increased the bank guarantees required by ERLAs from Ush 50,000,000 (US$14,055) to Ush100,000,000 (US$28,110). “ERLAs are mandated to allow the MoGLSD access to these funds when the need arises,” confirms Jamal, an employee at UAERA. The MoGLSD retains records of all Ugandan migrants and their agencies. In case any migrant worker abroad is exposed to any danger that requires immediate intervention, the guarantee funds are used to provide the required support or prepare for safe repatriation of the migrant worker. However, due to the weak system of governance —including embezzlement — these funds are not always available to support migrant workers.
Workers headed to the UAE pay significant fees
Workers travelling from Uganda to the UAE, across various sectors, complain of paying recruitment fees, and deplorable working conditions. Platform for Labour Action, a Ugandan civil society organisation working to promote and protect the rights of vulnerable and marginalised workers, partnered with MR to survey potential and returnee migrants.
A total of 108 (84 females and 24 males) prospective migrants participated in this survey. 33% of the respondents were aged between 18-24, 36% between 25-29 years, 24% between 30-35 years, and the rest were between 36-50 years old.
Only 3% had previously worked in the UAE, and all of them believed that the UAE had better job opportunities than other countries. The main source of information appears to be family and friends who have migrated earlier, and then from solicitation by agents.
The majority of prospective migrant workers interviewed (82%) planned to work as domestic workers, 13% as security guards, and the rest as chefs, drivers, and cleaners. Uganda and the UAE signed an MoU on the recruitment of domestic workers in 2019.
Regardless of how they heard of the job opportunity, the majority of respondents migrating for domestic work said they paid recruitment costs above the standard registration fees allowed by law.
The news of ill-treatment, exploitation, and arbitrary deportation does not deter those hoping to find a job in the UAE. The majority, 63%, said they were not affected by the news of deportation and the treatment of migrants did not affect their decision. 37% said their decisions were affected by the news, even if unverified, but that they remained reluctant to drop their plans.
“Lately, I have watched the news about the selling of human organs in the UAE and this has somehow scared me…In the news recently, there was a young lady whose organs were removed without her consent while working in the UAE. I will be careful while there and I will keep in contact with friends all the time so that in case I suspect anything then I will report to the relevant authorities,” says Adam, who was leaving shortly to work as a security guard in the Emirates.
Some are even more optimistic. Hadiya, who is in her early 20s, says “I will easily overcome the mistreatment because I am well-trained on their behaviour, roles, and responsibilities.’’
Out of the 36 returnees (25 females and 11 male), the majority 47% (17) were aged between 30-35 years, 39% (14) between 25-29 years, 4% were aged between 36-50 years and the rest 3% (1) were aged between 18-24 years.
All the workers interviewed in this survey had returned from the UAE, and many reported exploitation and abuse. The majority (83%) of returnees migrated through a registered recruitment company. And an equal percentage paid recruitment fees.
Even those who did migrate regularly and had signed a contract often contended with exploitative practices.
“I signed that my employer was to buy for me a return ticket, but I bought it myself after having worked for 2 years… I was told not to work in many homes but my boss told me to work for the whole family,” according to Mary*, a domestic worker in her late 20s. Helene*, 35, also says she was made to work in many houses, “…yet according to my contract, I was supposed to work in one home. I was over-exploited by my bosses.”
Surveyees reported common patterns of contract violations and abuse. “The working conditions were very poor, you are not allowed to sit down, you stand and work for 24 hours no resting, yet they promised a good working environment,” says Fatma, another domestic worker.
Ahmed, who worked as a security guard in the UAE, says. “We experienced delays in payment of our salaries because the contract we signed stated that we were supposed to be paid during the first week after the month had ended. Also, the amount that was stated on our contracts was reduced.”
Workers have little to no trust in either the governments of destination and origin. Four of those surveyed said they had filed complaints with the Ugandan embassy, local police, and the recruitment company that deployed them, but received no meaningful assistance.
“I went to the Uganda embassy through my agency, but my boss had too much authority in the country and I didn’t get any help,” says one domestic worker. Her compatriot says she also filed a complaint with the area police, they referred her to the recruitment company and she received no help.
Of those who refused to file complaints, one explained that she feared her boss’s wife would never allow her to get another job in the country and that she did not want to be unemployed.
While other domestic workers expressed similar concerns, a security guard surveyed said he did not report exploitative work conditions, “…because I feared that my bosses would develop a bad attitude towards me. This would lead to hatred, mistreatment, over-exploitation and finally termination of my contract, yet I need money to support my family.”
Other key findings:
- Most of the security guards interviewed said that they were provided professional training by the recruitment agencies before being deployed. It is unclear if the fees paid covered these costs.
- The recruitment fees workers paid to work as security guards in the UAE include recruitment fees, visa documentation, labour cards, medical check-up and passport processing fees, among others.
- Many workers reported that wages were frequently delayed.
- Accommodation for security guards was congested. One respondent said many of them were cramped eight to a small room.
Note: Of the returnees interviewed, 94% migrated on work visas and the rest migrated on visit visas. 64% of returnees were employed as domestic workers, 28% as security guards and the rest as cleaners.