In my pursuit to understand the challenges of Ugandans providing Labour in the Arab world, I have interfaced with various people and I would like to share with you what I have learnt.
It’s very important to note that the gulf region initially has a small population, but has since been involved in doing a lot of investments especially using the money they get from oil amongst other revenue sources. Upon this background, there is a great demand for the labor both skilled and unskilled labour and as such, the citizens within the gulf region take mostly the skilled jobs while the immigrant workers fill the space for domestic labour like security, construction jobs, house maids, nurses, chefs, waiters and the rest.
Many years ago, the system of provision of Labour that was originally applying on immigrant workers throughout this gulf region was known as the Kafala system.The word “Kafala” means sponsorship in Arabic. This is a migration management system that enables exploitation and forced labor—labour extracted under the threat of penalty, and not offered voluntarily by the worker. Kafala is a system of control.
In the migration context, it is a way for governments to delegate oversight and responsibility for migrants to private citizens or companies. The system gives sponsors a set of legal abilities to control workers: without the employer’s permission, workers cannot change jobs, quit jobs, or leave the country. If a worker leaves a job without permission, the employer has the power to cancel his or her residence visa, automatically turning the worker into an illegal resident in the country. Workers whose employers cancel their residency visas often have to leave the country through deportation proceedings, and many have to spend time behind bars.
Kafala regulation is overseen and enforced by each country’s Ministry of Interior. Workers’ immigration status is treated primarily as a security rather than a labour issue. Providing an interesting basis for comparison, the word Kafala actually also refers to the system under which children are adopted in Islamic countries. Sharia law does not allow legal adoption, giving adopted children same the legal status as biological children, but rather allows parents to “sponsor,” or guarantee the welfare of, an orphaned child and assume responsibility for its well-being.
The Kafala system of employment is the kind of employment where the employer your boss is allowed to treat you domestic worker as an adopted out sider. Under the Kafala system, your boss will decide what is good or bad for you. E.g. if you fall sick you will not be treated in the hospital if your employer does not direct the doctor to do so. If you’re raped, it’s your boss to decide whether it’s the police matter or not. If any circumstance there is need to compensate an employee, the benefits are given to your employer, the only rule in the system is that the employer has to pay you the employee your salary for the time of the contract and at the end of the contract the employer has to pay you one extra month of work and an air ticket.
If your boss is human enough or with a good heart and he/she happens to like you, you will work under good conditions. If you get a misunderstanding with him or family they can actually kill you and get away with it unless he goes to police to report him or herself and be witness against him or herself . On a few occasions the maid can actually report a rape case since this claim can be verified through medical checks alone. Actually in most cases those maids that get poisoned chances are high that they usually have something against their bosses and they have threatened to report such matter to the police. So all that am stating above is what is acceptable under the Kafala system.
It’s however important to note that after many years of practice but with criticisms from the rest of the modernized world, some states within the gulf region have since improved their legal regime, especially countries like United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, there is a need to tell this story in its entirety so that our people and governments are aware of what lies ahead of us as we seek to secure extra jobs for the millions of unemployed young people in this country. We should have an honest conversation about this matter and get the best strategy to address the gaps within the policy/business without giving chance to human traffickers like already highlighted earlier.
It’s important that the people should go in right channels processed by recognised recruitment firms. Our young people should not accept to be trafficked through Kenya. The Ugandan authorities should instead blacklist countries like Oman and Jordan that still apply bad employment laws under the Kafala system. The officials at the Entebbe migration office who simply receive bribes and allow our girls to be trafficked to such bad countries should be apprehended in addition to other initiatives already in place.
Role of the EAC Assembly
The East African legislative assembly should consider coming up with a joint Labour Export Strategy or policy that in essence negotiates for better working conditions of its people who work in the gulf region; Moreover we now have East African pass ports and am informed also that Sudan would want to join in and begin exporting labour which indicates that if we are able to negotiate a better deal as a region, even Tanzania and Rwanda will join too.
It’s important to note that it’s not just Africans who are working in the gulf, equally a huge number of the Filipino, Nepolians, and Indians work in the gulf region. However the difference between these nationalities and us is that their governments back home have negotiated for the better working conditions and formally signed agreements to this effect. Asian migrant workers earn around 500-800 US dollars while Ugandans mostly earn between 200-350 US dollars. It’s high time we jointly lobby for our citizens as an East African Community.
The gulf region remits over 500 billion dollars in employing migrant workers.
The governments in East Africa should note that it’s not just about having Embassies in the Gulf States, it’s about improving our relations with them and formalizing the processes.
Oversight and Security
We as a country or as the region should consider teaming up with International Labour Organizations to act as supervisors for recruitment firms both here in Uganda and the overseas recruitment firms that are based in the Gulf region. We protest our government’s failure to investigate and close down fake companies that are involved in human trafficking and individuals apprehended for prostitution.
We also need to establish joint police task forces in these host nations to enable our citizens who are working there to access helplines and be able to report in case there are any issues.
Am confident that together we can cause better working conditions for our brothers and sisters working in the gulf region or anywhere in the world.
Championing an inclusive youth-led Change!
Byamugisha Moses – FDC Activist & Leader.