Eight months after government banned the export of Ugandan women to work as house- maids in the Middle East due to mistreatment, traffickers are using the internet to net their victims, The Observer has learnt.
This was revealed by 22-year-old Grace Apio*, who has just returned from a tragic three-week stint in the United Arab Emirates, where she lost a colleague to suicide.
This is the latest twist in the often heart-rending story of desperate Ugandans lured by the promise jobs in the East only to see their dreams crushed by abuse. In an interview with The Observer, Apio told us of a clique of Ugandan 'agents' both here and in the UAE. They use the internet to net young women looking for greener pastures but who end up being used as sex slaves and mistreated house helps.
"I got the contact from the internet. As I was surfing for jobs abroad, a Google ad popped up and when I clicked on it, there was a WhatsApp number," said Grace, who stopped in Senior six. "When I contacted the owner, I was happy to know that it was a Ugandan who later connected me to his colleagues in Entebbe who were to help me process documents to leave," she said.
Grace, and another Ugandan woman, paid between Shs 1.8m and Shs 2m each for a flight to Abu Dhabi and were picked from the airport by a contact who took them to their place of work. On arrival, Grace saw her soon-to-be bosses giving money to her contact before she and her colleague were handed over.
"We had to wash about 20 cars each morning and look after a family of about 30 people. This was on top of no food, being beaten for any delay and getting insults," she said.
According to Grace, her colleague committed suicide within days and she (Grace) asked her bosses to let her go since she couldn't do all the work alone.
"They immediately locked me up in a small room and asked me to pay the money they had spent on my journey from Uganda which was about Shs 6m," she said.
"The house wife occasionally lent me her phone to talk to my people back home and ask for money so I could be released or else they would regret what would happen to me."
Grace says she was lucky to escape with the help of her boss's son, who gave her some money to take her to the Ugandan embassy.
"When I arrived, I found four more Ugandan women waiting outside the [embassy] gate. The officials told us that they couldn't help us but had to hand us over to police," she said.
Asked by email to respond to Grace's accusation that they failed to assist distressed Ugandans at their gate, our embassy officials in Abu Dhabi referred us to the ministry of foreign affairs.
By press time, the foreign affairs permanent secretary, Ambassador James Mugume, had not responded to our e-mail inquiries.
Pius Bigirimaana, the permanent secretary in the ministry of gender, labour and social development, said he wasn't aware of this trend in the movement of Ugandan maids abroad.
"I do not have any information on that issue but we are working very hard to see that we can normalize the situation," Bigirimaana said by telephone.
The Observer has learnt that the recruiting individuals operate both in Uganda and various Middle Eastern countries. The agents abroad spot the jobs and those in Uganda do the recruitment.
They have opened up Facebook accounts and run Google adverts to hook clients in Uganda. One of the agents we talked to said he gets a com- mission of around $500 on each young woman delivered to a client in the Arab world.
"On top of that, the boss is supposed to pay for the girl's air ticket and we wait for her at the airport," he said in a WhatsApp conversation. "As soon as we deliver the girl and we are paid, our job is done."
He disclosed that they have a string of agents in the country who help make the women's movement easier. Most of the women are channeled through Kenya.
In January this year, the Ugandan government banned its citizens from taking jobs as domestic workers in Arab countries, after reports that they were often abused and exploited by their employers. The then minister for gender, Wilson Muruli Mukasa, in a letter to the ministry of foreign affairs, said the ban would remain in force until the employment conditions were deemed fitting.
However, last week, the minister of state for labour, Herbert Kabafunzaki, suggested that the existing contracts of private companies taking domestic workers abroad should be allowed to run. Masaka Municipality MP Mathias Mpuuga, who opposed the suggestion during the session, told The Observer that the minister's statement was ambiguous.
"I brought a motion to parliament to form a separate committee to investigate companies, individuals and any other persons involved but the speaker overruled it saying it would be undermining the committee on gender," Mpuuga said by telephone.
Kitgum Woman MP Beatrice Anywar, the vice chairperson of the committee on gender, labour and social development, told The Observer there is need for a law on taking workers out of the country. She urged government to disclose contents of memoranda signed between recruiting firms and destination countries.
"As a committee, we intend to go to those countries where many of our people work and meet them," Anywar said. "We shall meet those that we will be able in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and others and we shall visit all foreign missions in those countries too."
*Names of victims have been changed to protect them from possible reprisals