Aisha Muhammed, not real name, left for Dubai from Kampala at the beginning of April 2018, on a promise of securing her dream job as a supermarket attendant. She had heard of not-so-rosy tales of Ugandan girls who had allegedly committed suicide or had been tortured by their bosses, but she was comforted that she would not endure similar treatment since she had gone through a registered company.
On arrival in Dubai, Aisha was dismayed when she was taken in as a house help or maid. She found it hard to stomach the disappointment, despite the fact that she was hired alongside another Ugandan girl. In the first week of her stay, Aisha said they were allowed to sleep just four hours in a day. The rest of the time, the duo was made to work in more than one home, something that was contrary to her contract.
But the worst was yet to come. Her male boss demanded that she sleeps with him, something she rejected. Another elder son from the same family too made similar approaches, as if the advances were choreographed.
Fortunately for Aisha, she was saved by the fact that they was sleeping in the same room with her counterpart. Her mobile phone also came in handy as it allowed her to stay in touch with her loved ones back home. Aisha narrated the ordeal and pleaded to be rescued from apparent slavery.
Her boyfriend Abu worked like a termite and got the help of security operatives that helped to organise for her rescue.
The company that had recruited her from Uganda reluctantly agreed to bring her back, as it claimed it had invested heavily in her. In an attempt to forestall the news from getting out, which would threaten the company’s reputation, the Somali-born boss of the Company asked Abu to pay for the one-way ticket.
Abu feared for Aisha’s life if she stayed with the employer any longer under the circumstances. So they both worked out a plan to ensure that he sent the ticket while she exited the home as soon as possible to avoid retribution.
On exit, she reported to a Police station, located several hundreds of kilometres from where she was working. The reported station is popular among Ugandan migrants for its tough stance against abusers of domestic workers. While at the police station, Aisha was alarmed to find several other Ugandan girls at the police station who had run-away from torturers and sex abusers, she further narrated.
Fortunately for Aisha, she had someone back home to work out her return.
Many other Ugandan girls have reportedly been forced to commit suicide, or have been killed by their employers.
Ugandan Parliamentarians who visited the UAE in September last year confirmed these shocking reports. Ngora County MP David Abala, who also headed the investigating committee that visited UAE said he was shocked to find the reports.
Despite the apparent gravity of the matter and a temporary halt in the exportation of domestic workers two years ago, business seems to have returned to normalcy with ever more domestic workers leaving the country, without a sense of urgency from Ugandan authorities to address the gross violations.
Although Uganda’s Constitution under Article 25, expressly prohibits slavery and other forms of forced labour and degrading treatment, the government has so far ignored rebutted reports of slavery and the suffering or death of Ugandan girls.
Reports this week that Uganda had summoned her envoy to the UAE Ambassador Nimisha Madhvani for reportedly endangering the country’s diplomatic relations when she allegedly told Ugandan MPs that 16 Ugandan girls had committed suicide, have exposed the government as insensitive about the lives and plight of Ugandans working in the Middle East.
The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Henry Okello Oryem dismissed the slavery reports as unfortunate, incorrect and a misrepresentation of what was on the ground.
“The truth is that there is no slave market,” he confidently told the House. Despite Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga’s insistence this week to have Minister Oryem fly to the Middle East to investigate the matter of slavery markets, the government’s bold stance to deny slavery appears has preempted the response.
Butambala county MP Muhammad Muwanga Kivumbi, who was part of the Committee that visited UAE last year, described the lack of action on the part of the Ugandan government as a huge let-down.
Of particular focus however, according to numerous reports received by The Sunrise, are concerns of continuing mistreatment of girls who work as maids.
One Ugandan we will identify only as Frank who has lived and worked as a security guard in Dubai, confirmed getting numerous reports of sexual abuses and other forms of mistreatment when he told this reporter that the complaints are common among domestic workers – majority of whom are young women.
Frank also confirmed the existence of a vibrant slave market in Arab countries when he said: “Girls who work as maids are slaves because they are simply bought from those who bought them from the agencies that imported them from their home countries.”
Parliament’s lack of action on the matter has left many girls feeling betrayed and could perhaps explain the continued abuses.
Ngora District Woman Representative Monica Amoding, who is also the Chairperson of Uganda Parliamentary Women Association (UWOPA) downplayed the suffering of Ugandan girls in a phone interview with The Sunrise. She said that only those girls who have refused to heed the government’s advice on using registered companies, end up being abused.
But MP Muwanga Kivumbi dismissed her comment as a mockery adding that she has vested interests in the continued and undisturbed flow of Ugandans to Arab countries.
Asked what needs to be done to end the apparent abuses, MP Kivumbi called for a total overhaul of the labour export industry. He called for the streamlining of the legal framework governing the participants, and a robust regulatory machinery which he said should include follow up mechanisms to monitor those who are taken to work in the Arab countries.
Kivumbi described the current regime of companies engaged in exporting domestic workers as ‘human traffickers profiteering in the misery of our people.’
Dr. Livingstone Sewanyana, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) who was recently appointed as a Independent Expert on the Promotion of Democratic and International Order by the United Nations Human Rights Council, also expressed concern about the lack of action.
“We need to wake up in this area. There is need to establish clear procedures on recruitment of Ugandans to work abroad,” Dr. Sewanyana said adding that as rights advocates, they have proposed measures by which all Ugandan workers initially report to our Embassy in a given country, to ensure effective monitoring.
Aisha’s sad tale is not unique. Someone else we shall only identify as Shamillah, living nearby Aisha in Kitende, Wakiso district was not as lucky. She confessed to her sister when she returned to Uganda unexpectedly that her male boss had arranged for her hasty flight back when he learned that his wife had gotten wind of them having sex.
If the official wife had reported the case of adultery to court, consequences would have been dire for the man, including death.
Another girl from a neighbouring home to Shamillah’s also abruptly returned to Uganda last year under similar circumstances. The boss had impregnated her but could not tolerate the consequences of fathering a child from a ‘slave’, as they are commonly known. So he hastily arranged her exit from the country.