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What does the suspension of labour agreement with Saudi Arabia mean for Uganda?

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In December 2022, the government of Uganda suspended a bilateral labour export agreement with Saudi Arabia over the continuous mistreatment and torture of Ugandan migrant workers.In 2017, the government of Uganda signed a five-year labor agreement with Saudi Arabia aimed at among others promoting the welfare and rights of Ugandan migrant workers.

The Observer reported that on December 23, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Gender, Aggrey David Kibenge informed recruitment agencies and pre-departure orientation and training institutions that the agreement with Saudi Arabia had been suspended effective immediately pending re-negotiations of the agreement.“This is therefore to inform you that clearance and deployment of migrant workers, approval of job orders, and training of migrant workers under this agreement are suspended with immediate effect. Note, however, that this temporary suspension does not affect migrant workers whose travel had already been cleared by the ministry, prior to this date, and are in possession of signed contracts, travel tickets, and entry visas” read the letter in part.

Kibenge also said that the government is pursuing other efforts for the protection of Ugandan workers. In the pipeline is the recruitment of labour attaches to follow up on Ugandan laborers abroad, strengthen embassy offices and establish a call center in Uganda to which, complaints about the welfare of Ugandan workers can be reported for action.Remittance and Revenue that was the only bilateral labour agreement that Uganda had. As of June last year, there were 235 licensed private recruitment companies. Every two years, each company pays Shs 2 million in license fees. Annually, Government collects US $1.3 billion globally from labour export business the Middle East alone sends in $700m.The government collects $30 (Shs110,000) job order fees for each eternalized worker. That money is wired directly to the Uganda Revenue Authority accounts. From August 2021 to August 2022, the government collected over Shs 12 billion from Job orders.Ministry of Internal Affairs says they process 10,000 passports every month and the biggest percentage goes to individuals seeking to work in the Middle East.According to the ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development, there are over 150,000 Ugandan migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. Most Ugandans are employed in the informal sector as housemaids, gardeners, cargo handlers and other jobs. Eagle Online learned that in 2021, Uganda externalized 89000 Ugandans of which 79000 went to Saudi Arabia. Of the Shs79000, 75000 were female. By June 2022 Uganda had externalized 50,000 nationals and a high percentage went to Saudi Arabia.Some of the proposals in the new agreement Ronnie Mukundane, spokesperson of the Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA) told Eagle Online that Saudi Arabia was the only bilateral labour agreement that Uganda had and the delay or a decision not to renew it will render hundreds of people in labour export companies jobless since the 95% of the job orders come from Saudi Arabia.Currently, the government is negotiating with Saudi Arabia to have the contract renewed. The negotiations will begin on February 6, 2023, and the agreement is scheduled to be signed on February 23, 2023, in Kampala.

“Some of the issues pointed out in the new agreement, is the observation of human rights and salary enhancement. In the recent agreement, Ugandans were earning Riyal 900 (about Shs 900,000). We proposed an increment for our people to benefit. The discussions are ongoing and a figure will be decided,” he said.Eagle Online learned that UAERA an umbrella body that brings together all labour recruitment companies suggested an increment of 400 Riyals (Shs 392,256) however Migrant Workers Voice suggested 600 (Shs588,385) to make 1500 Riyals (Shs1,4 million).The delayed renewal of the agreement is expected to fuel human trafficking into Saudi Arabia. In 2016, there was a ban for one year however over 40,000 Ugandans went to Saudi Arabia illegally and there is no one responsible for them.Our efforts to get a comment from Minister for Gender Betty Amongi and Lawrence Egulu, the commissioner in charge of Employment Services at the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development (MGLSD) were futile. She could not pick up nor return our repeated calls.

Speaking to Eagle Online, Abdallar Kayonde the President of Migrant Workers Voice said migrant workers have been sidelined. If we don’t involve ourselves in the coming agreement, we shall be left out forever, because the government intends to renew the agreement and repeat the same terms.He said the government should improvise within the same agreement and plead to ensure that the workers’ presence is recognized.“We wrote to the ministry, asking officially to have an administration as Ugandan migrant workers, which includes the Ugandan returning migrant workers and those already in Saudi Arabia because without us being inside, we cannot actually talk about anything,” he said.Migrant Workers Voice suggests an audit into Ugandans living in Saudi Arabia. They also want Saudi Arabia to account for the people who were there before. Saudi Embassy in Uganda reports that there are 200,000 Ugandans who were given visas while the Ministry of Gender said there are 150,000 Ugandans working in Saudi Arabia and UAERA says there are 165,000.“Therefore we need to form our own database. We are tired of defending people we don’t know. They walk from all angles. We don’t know them and we can’t trace their details. Sometimes have the capacity to assist them but we find difficulty in supporting these people with the right powers,” Kayonde said.He said migrant workers report cases to the association, it ends up being diverted into compromise because once labour export companies realize it’s a serious case, they begin manipulating families and victims.“We must look at that and identify who was trafficked, and who was not and this will help to fight human trafficking. We are supposed to work together for us to bargain for ourselves. It is internationally recognized and recommended,” he said adding, “That is why we are seeking an official entry as a third arm of the tripartite arrangement. Before signing the agreement, the government should come back home and organize from home.

Any person, who would look good before the public leaves home dressed well, cannot begin dressing from the public. Similarly, anyone who will look naked from the public will leave home naked,” he said.He said whoever complains, they call it drama or tainting the image of Uganda. How does that come, into place? Migrant workers have been neglected and their voices have been scattered. Whatever comes in form of those misguided missiles ends up affecting the industry and workers themselves.He said several Ugandan migrant workers have died at work but nobody has compensated them. What incentives do safe labor migration through recruitment companies bring on to Ugandan workers? There is none. No such incentives.“Several workers have been extorted by recruitment firms and other officials in the Ministry of gender. Without addressing the injustices, they are trying to put channels of extortion, systemically. Recruiters represent the employee and the employer on the other side in Saudi Arabia. Workers’ issues must be separated from the recruiters’ issues. Recruiters have an interest of profit to protect and workers have an interest of rights to protect and salaries,” he said.“We are insisting that workers should be given an administration in this country, they should manage their issues such that they can get in a good position to better ask the questions concerning their fellows. We are not infringing on anyone. And we do not want to turn into traffickers, just like how some companies wanted us to turn into,” he said.He said people monitoring employees are traffickers. How do you ask them to monitor workers? You are in a position of arresting them, suspending their licenses for trafficking workers but assigning them roles. What kind of craziness is that?“We are not against this industry because it is the only option for the country to survive on its own. It should be organized, and facilitate embassies to monitor them. Embassies are less facilitated to do their works and compromised with the diplomatic powers,” he said.

He said anyone who comes their way will be exposed including all the officers in the ministry, who have an interest in the same business. Every time we question them, they cannot answer because the questions affect them.From 2019 to date, Uganda has registered 88 deaths of migrant workers, according to the Gender ministry. Of these, Saudi Arabia has the highest number at 69.  On work-related injuries, only seven have been registered since 2019 in Saudi Arabia (five) and Iraq (two). 

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