Activist to Gov’t: Renegotiate Bilateral Labour Agreements for Migrant Workers

Marriam Mwiza, the Executive Director of Overseas Workers Voice Uganda – OWVU, which Advocates for the rights of migrant workers has rejected the speaker’s directive to the Gender, Labour and Social Development Committee to investigate the ownership of labor export firms. 

The speaker of parliament, Anita Among issued the directive on Tuesday last week following the recent death of Lydia Ayila, a resident of Kayunga District in Saudi Arabia. Among intervened after the Kayunga District Woman Member of Parliament, Idah Nantaba brought Ayila’s plight to the attention of Parliament on November 9, 2022. 

Nantaba told Parliament that Saudi authorities demanded US $3,400, an equivalent of 12.768 million Shillings to repatriate the deceased’s body or they bury her in a public cemetery. The Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development only managed to pay US$ 1,000 (3.755 million Shillings). 

Touched by the story, Among contributed US$2,400 (9 million Shillings) to Ayila’s mother to facilitate the repatriation of her remains. She tasked the Gender, Labour and Social Development Committee led by Flavia Kabahenda, the Kyegegwa District Woman Representative to liaise with the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development to conduct an in-depth investigation into the ownership of the labor export firms and report their findings to the House.

This has not gone down with Mwiza, the Chief Executive Officer at Overseas Workers Voice Uganda – OWVU who describes the proposed Parliamentary probe as a ‘sham’. She instead implores the Government to renegotiate better bilateral agreements with the Middle East Countries to abolish the ‘kafala’ system, which he says gives private citizens and companies almost total control over migrant workers.

Mwiza revealed to URN in an interview on Monday that the organization has been able directly to repatriate 600 migrant workers from the Gulf Countries Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – UAE.

She further revealed that during the same period, the organization also repatriated 54 bodies of Ugandan migrant workers who lost their lives in the Middle East. The latest bodies included that of Sharifah Birungi and Salima Babirye, both of whom were externalized in Saudi Arabia where they died in August 2022.

Apostle Julius Peter Oyet, the Founding Pastor of Life Line Ministries International who has been a critic of human trafficking and labor externalization warned that investigating owners of the labor export companies is a risky venture that requires one to write a ‘complete will’ before embarking on it.

According to the External Employment Management Information System – EEMIS data provided by the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development, there are over 900 firms that have been vetted and accredited to undertake external labor recruitments.

Around July 2021 Government through the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Gender, Labour and Social Development suspended at least 20 external labor recruitment agencies, citing forgeries, human trafficking, and extortion among others but the companies have since resumed operation without any notable punitive actions.

In the same year, the Uganda Human Rights Commission – UHRC reported cases of mistreatment or abuse of Ugandan migrant workers doubled to 421 from 214 the previous year.  The report faulted users of unregistered or fraudulent entities and job opportunities to trick their victims.

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