Current Affairs East Africa

Sold into modern slavery

Sold into modern slavery
  • PublishedFebruary 28, 2020

An increasing number of African women are being lured to work as domestics in the Middle East where they are exploited both by recruiters and employers. New African correspondent Epajjar Ojulu talked to one of these ‘modern-day slaves’.

As in other African countries, the rising number of unemployed is driving Uganda’s youth to the oil-rich Middle East in search of work.

The government, which is facing criticism for failing to create jobs for up to 80% of the estimated 400,000 school leavers and graduates from universities and tertiary institutions, according to the statistics, has flung the doors open for anyone wishing to find a job outside the country by liberalising the labour export sector. 

At the moment the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development does not regulate the activities of agencies specialising in recruiting locals to work overseas beyond requiring them to give updated reports on the volume and destination of workers, says John Ogutu, a senior labour officer.

An attempt by Mukono Municipality Member of Parliament, Betty Nambooze in July to introduce legislation to monitor and regulate the activities of such labour-export firms has been put on hold for now.

Janey Mukwaya, the Gender, Labour and Social Services Minister until December, has said that about 150 firms are licensed to recruit labour and have to date sent over 200,000 youths to work in the Middle East, mainly as unskilled and semi-skilled labourers, domestic workers and security guards.

She is probably unaware of the tens of thousands more, most of them the illiterate and semi-illiterate, excluded by licensed firms, which demand applicants have the minimum qualification of secondary school education.

Human traffickers

Some, including those with requisite qualifications, have been driven into the hands of human traffickers by the bureaucracy and the fees demanded by licensed firms. The trackers promise instant jobs.

In August, top executives of three prominent firms were arrested after numerous job seekers petitioned the police that they had not got jobs promised up to two years ago, after paying the required fee of up to Ush7m ($2,000). Human traffickers have apparently taken advantage of the negative publicity against licensed firms to lure youths desperate for jobs. 

Although thousands of girls have secured domestic work in the Middle East, the opposition MP for Mukono Municipality, Betty Nambooze, says she is receiving distress messages from dozens of them, complaining about mistreatment by their employers.

Other MPs from constituencies within and outside Kampala, where most recruitment is done, have acknowledged receiving similar messages. Nambooze says that through the pressure she has exerted, some of the women have been sent back home.

Ugandan woman recounts her ordeal

One of them is a 45-year-old mother of six, Rosemary Oduya. She narrates her ordeal to New African: “Since I did not have formal education I do not know how to write or read. With six children to take care of after their father abandoned them, I was persuaded by someone that I could find a job as a housemaid in an Arab country. I was introduced to a Muslim lady near Kampala city, who could help me find the job.” 

Rosemary Oduya, who was reluctant to have her photo published over safety concerns, continues: “The lady, referred to as ‘Hajat’, sounded kind and sympathised with me. She assured me that I would get a job within three weeks. She asked for and I gave her my national identification card to enable her to process a passport.

“She asked for Ush800,000 (approximately $200). When I told a friend about the amount of money she demanded for a passport, she told me the official fee for a passport is Ush200,000.

“When I complained to ‘Hajat’, she said although the official process of obtaining a passport is cheap, it takes a long time and yet she had a job opening ready for me in three weeks. She asked for my photograph. A few days later she told me the passport was ready. She neither gave or showed it to me.

“A few days later, she called me to meet her in a clinic for a medical check-up. To my surprise, while I paid Ush100,000 for the medical, an examination report was written, although I was not examined.

“I was then told to raise Ush1,500,000 for an air ticket to a destination I did not know. I sold off a family piece of land to raise the money. A few days before I travelled in early April  this year, I was asked for Ush1,000,000 as the fee for securing the job. I had no money and I had to sell my house.”

False passports

Rosemary Oduya continues her disturbing narrative: “A man who said he worked for ‘Hajat’ rang to tell me to prepare for the journey the next day. A car with tinted-glass windows picked me up from an agreed place in Kampala city’s Kireka suburb. We collected three other women from places in the city. I had never been to Entebbe airport. When we arrived there, a man ushered us through a door and told us to wait by one of the corridors. He had the passports and air tickets for the four of us with him.

“When he returned he told us that the names in the passports were different to ours. He said that as we were to work in Arab countries, it was important for us to have Muslim names. When he handed over the passport to me it bore the name Faridah Bukirwa. I was stunned. Shortly after, we boarded a flydubai plane at around 7pm.

“When we landed in Dubai, we were received by a man who drove us in a car for two hours to a place where we were ushered into a third-floor room in a five-storey building, where we found a dozen women from Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea.”

Buyers haggle over price

I heard one of them tell her colleagues in a Ugandan local language that they too had fallen into a trap. I wept the whole night. We slept on the floor and we were given a few pieces of bread and black tea. The following day we were herded into a room downstairs where men and women haggled over our purchase in Arabic.

“I was ‘bought’ by an elderly couple, who lived in a two-storeyed building with three other families. My job was to mop the floor, wash clothes, utensils and three cars every day. I worked for 18 hours and slept little. I had no idea about how much I would be paid.

“One day I blacked out and collapsed. When I was taken to hospital I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. My hands had become numb and I was breathing with difficulty. My boss got scared and used that month’s pay to buy an air ticket for me to return home.

“Before I came to Dubai, ‘Hajat’ had persuaded me to send my earnings to her bank account, to pass it on to my children, since I had none. She did not do that. I have been advised to steer clear of this woman because she is suspected to be the face of criminal gangs within the security, the police and the passport offices.”

The shame of modern slavery

From our investigations, Rosemary Oduya was relatively fortunate. The fate of other modern slaves from East Africa is far worse. This is nothing short of modern-day slavery and our governments should use their diplomatic channels to ensure that Africans are treated correctly and with dignity when they go to work overseas. 


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Written By
Epajjar Ojulu

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