In Uganda, the government-legalised exportation of labour raises disturbing questions. By John Njoroge in Kampala.
Between 2009 and 2010 a Ugandan security contractor in Iraq, Samuel Tumwesigye, risked his life and the terms of his contract in an attempt to rescue several Ugandan women who had been tricked into domestic slavery.
Tumwesigye had initially been contacted by a Ugandan woman who herself had been sold to an Iraqi family as a domestic worker, while initially she had thought she was going to Iraq to work in a supermarket at a US military facility.
Over the next few weeks, Tumwesigye received numerous calls from desperate women enslaved in different parts of Iraq, particularly Baghdad. These women had created a network in an attempt
to share their locations and experiences and find a way out of slavery.
Shocked at the revelations, and armed with enough evidence, Tumwesigye consulted with Lt. Col. Theodore Lockwood of the US army. In an interview with Uganda’s Daily Monitor, Tumwesigye recounted how his hopes were nearly dashed when Lockwood told him there was very little the army could do to rescue these women. However, to Tumwesigye’s surprise, Lockwood pledged to do anything in his power to help the women if they made their way to the airbase.
Months later, nearly 50 women miraculously escaped their captors, making their way to Tumwesigye, who took then to the Baghdad-based US military facility. The US army provided medical and psychological help before the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) flew the women back to Uganda.
At an official level, the Ugandan government did not respond to the ordeal of these women, and the many more who to date remain unaccounted for in various parts of the Middle East.
Investigations have revealed that these women are tricked into domestic slavery through legitimately registered labour export companies, many of which have strong affiliations with the Ugandan military and government.
Even with all these revelations of the suffering of Ugandans, these labour companies continue to receive hundreds of thousands of applications. Shockingly, the majority of the applicants are university graduates and professionals in various fields who cannot find employment within their professions or any other sector. Despite knowing well that there are no guarantees of there being labour protection laws in the countries they are going to, these Ugandans continue to register at the labour export companies to try their luck outside Uganda.
The companies earn huge sums in foreign exchange for transporting laborers. The Ugandan government’s failure to protect its citizens overseas is nothing new. Many Ugandans have been left to “fend for themselves” if they fall on hard times while outside the country. In numerous addresses, the country’s president has referred to Ugandans who work outside the country as “greedy” people who have refused to contribute to growing the economy at home.
The employment situation in Uganda is critical. Every year, over three million youths graduate with the hope of joining the labour market. Yet there is no set retirement age limit, and there remains a problem of professional progression. It is not unusual to find a director at a parastatal in Uganda who has held the same position for 20 years. This means that subordinates have no hope of upward professional progression within the same organisation, nor are there vacancies for new entrants.
More and more foreign investors continue to flood the Ugandan market, setting up companies and industrial enterprises. These investors have the freedom to employ who they want to fulfil their business objectives. In many cases, these investors bring in their own employees from their countries of origin and leave only manual jobs at the minimum wage for Ugandans.
The inability to find better pay for professional jobs, the lack of professional progression and the inability of new graduates to find jobs, pushes more and more Ugandans to leave the country in search of employment. The available labour export companies exploit loopholes to channel more and more desperate Ugandans abroad to conditions they cannot guarantee.
An investigation in 2011 unearthed that Ugandan labour export organisations work with unlicensed and in some cases illegal labour organisations in countries abroad to supply workers. The Ugandan government exercises very little regulation over these companies.
In fact, it works to the government’s advantage to have more and more unemployed Ugandans leaving the country because according to the security services, the unemployed constitute the bulk of the support for the country’s opposition, particularly for Dr Kizza Besigye. The security services also say that the unemployed engage in the protests that disrupt business activities in the country’s capital, Kampala.
The biggest catch, however, is that most of these labour export companies are affiliated to untouchable Ugandans who have been given a free hand to exploit. And so every morning, on numerous Ugandan radio stations, advertisements for work opportunities abroad are broadcast.
There are no guarantees on the promised pay, there are no protection mechanisms backed by the Ugandan government, and no guaranteed labour laws in the countries concerned. Ugandans, however, would rather risk these conditions than remain in poverty.
President Yoweri Museveni has time and again emphasised the need for more and more Ugandans to engage in agriculture as a way out of poverty. He has also set up the “Operation Wealth Creation” spearheaded by his brother, General Salim Saleh. The programme provides seeds and livestock to farmers, and in some cases cash to start enterprises. Ambitious and well thought through as the programme is, it is plagued by corruption. Access to these inputs and finance tends to be discriminatory and dependent on one’s political affiliation, and in many ways ethnicity. Evidently, parts of the country that are known to be opposition strongholds have very little access to such facilities.
Access to markets for agricultural produce is limited by the fact that agricultural cooperative organisations are non-factional. Farmers have to compete to sell their produce.
Under these conditions, Ugandans continue to seek employment overseas, primarily in the Middle East where conditions are uncertain, and labour export organisations exploit these conditions to engage in human trafficking. This near involuntary movement of human beings is not about to stop.