Hundreds of women enticed by prospects of well-paid domestic worker jobs in Saudi Arabia have returned home to Uganda with horrifying tales of being repeatedly raped, assaulted and overworked.
Barely six months after the Ugandan government signed a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia to send Ugandans to the kingdom as domestic workers, allegations have surfaced of the maltreatment and abuse of the women at the hands of their employers and their employers’ family members.
In a letter dated January 22 2016 and addressed to the Ugandan minister of foreign affairs, the country’s minister of gender, labour and social development, Muruli Mukasa, issued a ban on the recruitment and deployment of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia and other countries.
“Our expectations were that, with the signing of the agreement, trafficking in persons to Saudi Arabia would stop,” the letter reads. “To our surprise, we have continued to receive information of our people being subjected to inhumane treatment at the hands of the employers in Saudi Arabia.”
A number of video and audio clips and photographs depicting Ugandans being abused in the kingdom have gone viral on social media, with many of the workers calling on their parents and the government to come to their rescue.
The Kyampisi Childcare Ministries, which fights child trafficking, sacrifice and abuse in Uganda, has become a rehabilitation centre for the returning women and girl workers. At least 10 of them are receiving care at the organisation, which is situated a few kilometres outside the capital, Kampala.
Promises made in contracts are not adhered to and the women are often subjected to abuse by their employers. (Photos: Will Boase)
One of the women at the centre, Joan Nalugya* (23), travelled with 24 other women to Saudi Arabia. She was taken to a home in Ha’il in the northwest of the country where, in addition to her domestic chores, she had to massage everyone in the family.
Nalugya’s situation deteriorated further and she was forced to endure daily sexual abuse from different members of the family. On one occasion she was stabbed when she tried to ward off a family member who was trying to rape her.
Nalugya managed to escape and fled to the local police station where she spent two weeks before her employer returned her passport and paid for her ticket to Uganda.
Justine Nakandi* (25) left for Saudi Arabia in October last year with 56 other women. All arrangements were made by a recruitment agency. As soon as the group landed in Saudi Arabia, their passports were taken from them.
After a five-hour wait, Nakandi said she was taken to a hospital to undergo HIV and pregnancy tests, which she said had already been done in Uganda. She was later taken to her employer’s three-storey house where 10 family members lived.
“I had to clean the whole house every day and also take care of the grandmother – from bathing her to changing her diapers. I also had to respond to the endless demands of the seven children,” she said.
After three weeks, Nakandi suffered intense abdominal pains. She was taken to a hospital where she was told doctors would carry out a surgical procedure on her.
With the stitches visible and no medical report, Nakandi has no idea what was done to her in hospital. Three days after the surgery her employer wanted her back at work. When she refused to return, she was put on a flight back to Kampala.
No funding to pursue traffickers
In the wake of the scandal, a Kenyan, Khalima Abdullah, was arrested for allegedly trafficking girls to work as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates through her unlicensed company, Turkey Business Solutions.
She was arrested after a two-month investigation by police, which was facilitated by Kyampisi Childcare Ministries. Abdullah had allegedly recruited most of the girls who ended up in the rehabilitation centre on their return to Uganda.
The founder and executive director of the ministries, Peter Sewakiryanga, said investigators from the United States and Australia had worked with Ugandan police to unearth the network that led to Abdullah’s arrest.
“On the day of the arrest, we intercepted a total of 34 girls who were scheduled to travel that night and over 100 Ugandan passports were found at the location,” he said.
Sewakiryanga said the syndicate was well organised. Unlicensed companies would tell the girls to use the names of licensed companies in case immigration officials asked them who had recruited them.
He said there was no funding available for the police to pursue and arrest the traffickers.
“Some of these officers are willing to go after these cases but lack facilitation,” he said. “We have spent about [$5 700] to facilitate officers [in] the field.”
Conditions in Uganda make the offer of well-paid domestic worker jobs in Saudi Arabia very tempting for many women.
Nooh Mayambala, board chairperson of the Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies, said: “Some of these girls think they have gone on holiday in Saudi Arabia. It is serious work and you can’t get money if you don’t work hard, sometimes beyond the formal working hours.”
Mayambala said the videos and audio messages making the rounds on social media in Uganda were the work of saboteurs who want to ruin opportunities for poor Ugandans.
The Ugandan government said the bilateral agreement it signed with Saudi Arabia to send domestic workers to the kingdom was in response to the high unemployment levels in the country – 83% of Ugandans aged 15 to 24 are not in employment.
The country’s youth minister, Evelyn Anite, told Parliament in August last year that 2 000 young Ugandans had been sent to Saudi Arabia to work.
She told the Mail & Guardian that the bilateral agreement was fair and offered a good opportunity for the unemployed youth. “[But] I think someone has not been doing their job and the conditions of the agreement have not been respected. The people in charge should explain to the country what went wrong,” she said.
The agreement stipulated that the workers had to be provided with health insurance and receive a minimum wage of $200 a week.
Large-scale maltreatment of immigrant workers
Ugandan journalist Yasin Kakande, who authored Slave States and The Ambitious Struggle: An African Journalist’s Journey to Hope and Identity in a Land of Migrants after a decade working in the United Arab Emirates, said the Uganda-Saudi Arabia migrant labour deal was bound to end in controversy because of the large-scale maltreatment of immigrant workers in the Middle East.
Kakande’s two books highlight the torture and maltreatment of immigrant workers in the region. He said Uganda had gone against the tide, because many countries had stopped sending migrant workers to certain Middle East states.
Radio programmes in Uganda regularly carry advertisements from recruitment agencies that promise desperate Ugandans “heaven” as workers in the Gulf states.
“They never tell them 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,” said Kakande.
The husband of Resty Ramisi, a mother of four, won’t allow her to return to her marital home after working in Saudi Arabia.
She escaped her abusive working conditions in the middle of the night and ended up at a police station from where she was taken to a holding centre. Without her passport, which had been confiscated by her employer on her arrival, she spent nearly six weeks waiting to be flown back to Uganda.
But back home, with the news of the abuse and rape suffered by women working abroad, Ramisi’s husband doesn’t want anything to do with her.
“He thinks I was also sexually abused and has told me not to return to his house,” said Ramisi.
Ernest Kajubi, the broker who recruited Ramisi for one of the employment agencies, is struggling to get his wife, Jane, released from a holding centre in Saudi Arabia.
Kajubi said he had recruited about 20 women for agencies offering work in the Middle East. About half of them had voiced their unhappiness at their working conditions, but felt they needed to persevere so they could bring money home.
Abuse and exploitation
Uganda’s labour ministry lists 55 licensed labour recruitment agencies. But various studies point to hundreds of unregistered companies and individuals operating in the country.
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2016 said there are more than nine million migrant workers in the Middle East doing manual, clerical and service jobs and that many of them suffer abuse and exploitation, sometimes amounting to conditions of forced labour.
“The kafala [sponsorship] system ties migrant workers’ residency permits to ‘sponsoring’ employers, whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or exit the country under normal circumstances.
“Some employers illegally confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will,” the report stated.
It added that domestic workers, predominantly women, faced a range of abuses including overwork, forced confinement, nonpayment of wages, food deprivation and psychological, physical and sexual abuse without the authorities holding their employers to account. Workers who attempted to report employer abuses sometimes faced prosecution based on counterclaims of theft, “black magic” or “sorcery”.
Uganda’s New Vision newspaper reported that Interpol’s director in Uganda said the ban on sending migrant workers abroad will last for three months, during which time investigations will be carried out before a final decision is undertaken on whether to lift the ban.
The Ugandan labour ministry has so far secured the return of seven young women. Another 17 are still held in an exit shelter in Saudi Arabia awaiting the necessary documentation for their release. Some of them are said to have spent more than a month at the shelter after they escaped from their employers’ houses.
The Saudi Arabia embassy in Kampala did not respond to an emailed request for comment on the women’s allegations.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the women.