Uganda brings maid workers back following abuse allegations

Ugandan officials help bring maid workers back following allegations they were abused in Saudi Arabia

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Uganda has joined the Philippines, Indonesia and Ethiopia in banning the recruitment of maids to work in Saudi Arabia.

Ugandan officials are helping to bring back about 24 women who were working as domestic staff in Saudi Arabia after complaints about abuse that prompted a ban on sending Ugandans as housemaids to the Gulf state, a spokesman said on Friday.

Seven women have returned to Uganda so far this week after the Ugandan Embassy in Saudi Arabia intervened when they left their employers complaining about abuse and mistreatment and moved into Saudi detention centers waiting to go home.

Sheikh Rashid Yahya Ssemuddu, the Ugandan ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said the women were staying at a shelter operated by the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

The Ugandan government last week announced a ban on sending housemaids to Saudi Arabia after a barrage of complaints about workers being treated inhumanely and said the ban would remain until working conditions were "deemed fitting."

Ssemuddu said about 24 Ugandan women were at the shelter, some needing paperwork and airline tickets after complaining they had been held as slaves and their passports taken away.

"We are in daily contact with them and efforts are underway to have the rest of the women return home in the coming few days," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Saudi Embassy in Uganda did not respond to requests for comment.

It is the second time that Uganda had banned the movement of domestic staff to Saudi Arabia after a similar move in 2014.

But the two nations signed a five-year deal last July allowing college graduates to seek jobs as domestic workers and in other fields in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which was seen as a way of addressing high unemployment among young people in Uganda.

At the time Uganda's Labour Minister Muruli Mukasa said the agreement was intended to protect the rights and welfare of immigrant workers by setting a minimum wage and stopping labour companies from taking money from applicants' salaries.

Ssemuddu said the embassy has received word from the Saudi Ministry of Labour that it now wants to schedule a meeting to discuss the bilateral agreement between the two trade partners.

"Our people should remain calm because we have known all the problems and their sources and we are going to deal with them," he said.

Anti-slavery campaigners have called for Ugandan officials to be more vigilant to stop the trafficking of women to the Gulf states, many of whom are targeted by private, unauthorised recruitment agencies.

Rehema Babirye, one of the women who returned this week, said she was deceived by a local recruitment company who promised her a job in sales in Saudi Arabia. Once she arrived she was taken to work as a maid with no days off.

"When I protested and said I wanted to return back to my country I was instead arrested," she said.

Recruitment of workers to travel to the Gulf states is a big business in Uganda.

Many recruitment companies require candidates to pay for an airline ticket and visa costing thousands of dollars even though every legislative mandate in the Gulf requires the employer, not the employee, bear the costs of recruitment.

But many then complain that they are held as slaves.

The Australia-based anti-slavery campaign group Walk Free estimates about 36 million people are trapped in modern-day slavery around the world.

TRTWorld, Reuters