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Why is government concealing details of the Bilateral Agreement with Saudi Arabia?

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By Kayonde Abdallah

In December 2022, the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MGLSD), suspended the bilateral agreement with the Saudi Arabian government, three days before its end. The bilateral agreement was canceled, due to complaints from stakeholders about clauses that were causing conflict amongst players in the migrant workers’ industry. It should be noted that this agreement was compiled in 2005 and it automatically renews itself if it is not contested. When there are no complaints regarding a bilateral agreement, it is assumed that all parties involved are happy with the situation. 

One of the shortcomings of this bilateral agreement prepared in 2005, was that it had no Joint Technical Committee (JTC). The existence of this committee was suggested by this agreement, to provide an oversight role over migrant workers. Officials at the MGLSD explained that whenever they would arrange to constitute this committee with the Saudi Arabians, they would not turn up.

 Without an oversight body, Ugandan migrant workers in Saudi Arabia have been treated inhumanly, abused and degraded, as a result. There have been numerous unexplainable deaths and disabilities, especially among domestic workers working in the Middle East over the years. These girls usually make videos that they share on social media calling for help while in situations where they cannot help themselves. Ugandan migrant workers were hopeful when the bilateral agreement was suspended. Following the suspension, the MGLSD invited all stakeholders in the migrant workers’ industry, in January 2023, to seek their input in the new agreement. However, this meeting did not allow the stakeholders present to have any discussions. The representatives of migrant workers were unhappy that they were not given time to air their views. The meeting was limited to 30 minutes and it was concluded. MGLSD informed the stakeholders that they would be invited again for discussions. 

Now, the 60 days given since December 27th, 2022, within which a new agreement was to be developed are coming to an end. Migrant workers are frustrated and disturbed that MGLSD has not invited the stakeholders for detailed consultations as promised. It now seems as though the MGLSD was calling them as part of the protocol without really looking to hear from them or incorporate their views. While they were asked for proposals on what should be included in the new agreements, there has been no in-depth discussion or even an acknowledgment of the issues raised. The worry here is that MGLSD officials may be looking to sign an agreement that favors the Arabs, otherwise, why aren’t they being transparent about the developments in the bilateral agreement? 

One of the core issues migrant workers are looking to have addressed about the myriad, is the minimum wage offered to Ugandan migrant workers. It is appalling that workers from other countries who do the same work in the exact locations in the Middle East, earn a much higher minimum wage. This is because these countries have this clause catered for in their bilateral agreements with these countries. Ugandans usually earn a minimum of 700,000 shillings while migrant workers from other countries earn a minimum of 1.6 million shillings. 

Secondly, workers from other nations are not mistreated and abused like Ugandans because they have stringent clauses in their bilateral agreements to this effect. Ugandans on the other hand are denied access to justice and health services even when they are visibly in need of these services. They are denied basics like food and sleep, leading some to commit suicide or suffer debilitating health complications or death. Many end up suffering serious mental health issues from the unbelievably degrading treatment meted out to them, which many times complicated further when they demand to return back home. Their travel documents and phones are confiscated so that they are cut off from friends and family. This gross abuse is against the migrant workers’ rights or human rights for that matter.

While the proposed JTC might provide an oversight role, it might not go deep into all the issues that affect Uganda’s migrant workers. Uganda can benchmark countries like the Philippines which have successfully navigated the issue of mistreatment of their nationals. As a matter of fact, the African Union recommended that all countries involved in labour externalization should benchmark the successful Philippine example because it is working well. 

Kayonde Abdallah is the President Migrant Worker’s Voice.

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