Uganda Suspends Labour Agreement with Saudi Arabia over Mistreatment

Uganda has suspended a bilateral labour export agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over complaints of alleged continued mistreatment and torture of Ugandan migrant workers.

In 2017, the Ugandan government entered into a five-year labour agreement with Saudi Arabia aimed at promoting the welfare and rights of migrant workers.

Statistics from the ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development show that Saudi Arabia is the biggest labour externalization destination in the Middle East with over 150,000 Ugandans migrant workers. 

However, there have been persistent complaints about the torture of Ugandan labourers, confiscation of their travel documents such as passports, denial of leave and return permits, and non-payment among others.

With the effective expiry of the agreement today December 27, Uganda through the ministry of Gender has asked Saudi Arabia to address the different grievances raised by Ugandan migrants if the agreement is to be renewed. 

Last Friday, December 23, the permanent secretary of the ministry of Gender, Aggrey David Kibenge informed recruitment agencies and pre-departure orientation and training institutions that the agreement with Saudi Arabia had been suspended effective immediately pending re-negotiations of the agreement.

“This is therefore to inform you that clearance and deployment of migrant workers, approval of job orders, and training of migrant workers under this agreement are suspended with immediate effect. Note, however, that this temporary suspension does not affect migrant workers whose travel had already been cleared by the ministry, prior to this date, and are in possession of signed contracts, travel tickets, and entry visas” read the letter in part.

However, the suspension of the agreement has met strong criticism from labour externalization companies describing the abrupt move as disruptive to their business and against the provisions of the agreement. The agreement is automatically renewed upon expiry but parties intending to suspend or terminate the contract, can issue a notice at least six months giving reasons for their intention. The sixty days are used to address any grievances raised by either party, and a decision on future relationships taken. 

A source in one of the labour recruitment agencies says they held a meeting with officials from the ministry of Gender and agreed that proper procedures be followed if the suspension is to be effective. Kibenge says that they have tabled their demands before Saudi officials and hope that their demands shall be met by the close of 60 days. 

He indicated that they have already confirmed receipt of the notice and are working on resolving the matter. He says that for a long time they have asked Saudi officials to respect the provisions of their bilateral agreement especially those regarding protecting migrant workers and ensuring their welfare but their efforts have yielded minimal if any results. 

Kibenge also says that the government is pursuing other efforts for the protection of Ugandan workers. In the pipeline is the recruitment of labour attaches to follow up on Ugandan labourers abroad, strengthen embassy offices and establish a call centre in Uganda to which, complaints about the welfare of Ugandan workers can be reported for action.

The cabinet resolved to issue a supplementary budget of Shs 4 billion but Kibenge says that the ministry of Finance is yet to respond. He is optimistic that when Uganda strengthens its presence in Saudi Arabia, it shall easily monitor Ugandans working there and promote their welfare working together with the kingdom.  

Ronnie Mukundane, the spokesperson of the Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UERA) declined to comment on the relationship between Uganda and Saudi Arabia, saying that with the ongoing negotiations, the matter is beyond them as recruiters and they can only wait for the two countries to re-negotiate as communicated.

According to the 2021 Uganda Human Rights Commission annual report, although migration has provided employment opportunities and improved the living conditions of many Ugandans and their families, reports of harm and exploitation experienced by Ugandan migrant domestic workers at the hands of their employers in the Middle East, including sexual and physical abuse, withholding of salaries. The report says that all these human rights violations and abuses should be addressed to make working in the Middle East safe.

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