Earlier this year the Ugandan government enacted a ban on its citizens from seeking employment in Saudi Arabia. I interviewed Mayambala Wafrika, a Ugandan human rights activist and Chair of the Justice for African Workers campaign, to find out why.
- What got you interested in this issue?
In January 2016, many young girls from Uganda around the age of 16 to 25 years sent audio and video recordings home, crying for help. Their outcry was in search to be rescued from torturous houses in Arab countries. Many of them were claiming to be raped, tortured and forced to work under inhumane conditions. Their videos went viral, forcing me and the general public to take interest in their plight.
As the chairperson of the Worldwide African Congress, I invited my colleagues to join me in the Justice for African Workers campaign to help rescue our sisters. Those who joined the campaign include Ronald Nsubuga of R. Nsubuga and Co Advocates, and Doreen Assimwe the Managing Director of Uganda Fire Experts.
- Why do you think Ugandan women, in particular, are attracted to opportunities in Saudi Arabia, in particular?
Women from poor African and Asian countries are lured to work as housemaids in Arab countries due to high unemployment rates back in their home countries. Uganda, for example, has one of the highest unemployment rates among young people below the age of 25 in the world. It stands at 83 percent according to the World Bank’s African Development Indicators for 2008-2009.
One girl (her name withheld for security reasons), currently held inside a house in Saudi Arabia against her will, approached our group for assistance. She graduated as an I.T. specialist from a university in India. Upon returning back home, she failed to get a decent job. She decided to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia in search of greener pastures. The agents from Uganda who transported her sold her to a Saudi company called Besher Recruiting Agency.
Besher confiscated her travel documents including her passports and forced her to work without any formal contract. She first worked in 4 houses without pay but kept on running away due to inhumane conditions. A Saudi family later bought her from the agency at a cost of 16,000 Saudi riyals (around $4,200). A trade similar to the trans-Atlantic slave markets in America in 1800s. In Uganda, she was promised work that would pay $300 per month, but instead she received only around half of the promised salary.
She says the household she works for forces her to do hard labour including cleaning from 6am in the morning until 3am at night. Her daily chores include degrading services like flushing toilets after family members, washing the underwear of household girls and cleaning after them during their monthly periods. She demands to be brought back to Uganda but the agency won’t allow her since it already took a lot of money from the family she works for. Her story is similar to reports narrated by several girls. Another girl in Oman is paid only $40 dollars per month but she has to clean 3 different houses every day.
But the problem is more than just unemployment. Many girls are lured to Arab countries by devious relatives or friends. These relatives promise to keep them safe, claiming to know the agency they will be working for. Little do they know that their relatives are actually paid around $500 per girl they deliver to the Arab agency. And that upon arrival, their relatives or friends will not be able to protect them since they essentially become property of the agency they are sold to.
- Do you think the issue receives sufficient attention from governments and the international community? Why or why not?
The international community is strangely silent. The US embassy normally makes official statements when reports of human rights violations are egregious, but they’re strangely silent on the plight of these Ugandan housemaids.
After rigorous lobbying, the parliament of Uganda managed to put a ban on the exportation of housemaids to Arab countries. Unfortunately, little or no measures have been implemented to enforce the ban. Many girls are still recruited openly. Agencies now use Kenyan airports to traffic them. Recently, the Kenyan police arrested a group of 26 Ugandan girls who were being held in a lodge, waiting to be trafficked to Saudi Arabia.
The assistance we need from the government is simple, like processing new official travel documents so that we can transport these girls back home. But our organization has moved from one government office to another in search for assistance in vain. On 28 April 2016, under the Justice for African Workers campaign, we decided to take a petition to the parliament of Uganda demanding the resignation of the Foreign Affairs Minister and our ambassadors in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on grounds of neglecting our citizens.
- What do you think are the biggest public misperceptions about this issue?
Many people in Africa hold the misperception that life outside the continent is by default better. They’re not aware of the perverse racism against black people that is still rampant in Arab countries. While western governments have implemented different policies to try and end racism, many Arab governments are in denial of the existence of racial prejudice in their society. As a result, a survey published by the Washington Post in 2013 pinned Arab countries as the most racist places on earth, only after India.
We have cases where girls claim that family members they work for look at them like animals. They don’t want to talk to them, share the same dining room or eat on the same plates. It’s common to find black housemaids who are given leftovers of food of their bosses. One girl claimed that her boss would rather throw away leftover milk than give it to her.
- Do you see this more as a crime, or more as a human rights abuse? Why? Is the distinction important in your opinion?
Given the way how most girls are trafficked, raped, tortured and forced to work against their will, its appropriate for one to conclude that this is a syndicated crime. The maltreatment of our girls in Arab countries today is similar to the enslavement of Africans during mediaeval days. The only difference is that today girls are offered some small money as a form of consolation but the misguided racial attitudes and inhumane treatments are the same.
The human rights of these housemaids are obviously abused in the process but the extent to which it is done proves that this is a criminal enterprise that must be halted. We have reports that indicate there are ministers, ambassadors and powerful people in the government who are involved in this human trafficking.
- What do you think are the best strategies to fight trafficking?
There is need for greater coordination between African governments, the international community and Interpol. For example, the names of agencies that are involved in this human trafficking scheme are openly known. But since Arab governments keep denying the mistreatment of housemaids in their countries, nothing can be done to hold these Arab based agencies accountable. It is only Interpol in coordination with the International Criminal Court that can arrest and force these agency kingpins to face the wrath of justice.
Other poor countries like Philippines have banned taking their people to work as housemaids due to torturous conditions. African governments must impose and enforce a similar ban.
Our ancestors like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King struggled to ensure that we, their children enjoy life with dignity. African people need to be reminded that nothing should ever take us back to life of servitude. Poverty should never be substituted with slavery.
Chairperson, Justice for African Workers campaign