Women from many countries have been going to work as domestic workers in the Gulf States for a long time. But this particular story starts with some disturbing audio that went viral in Uganda. In the recording, several young Ugandan women talk about being tortured while employed as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.
This prompted Uganda’s Minister for Gender, Labour and Social Development, Mukasa Muruli Wilson, to write a letter calling for the ban of “recruitment and deployment” of women to work in Saudi Arabia.
In July last year, Uganda had actually signed a memo of understanding with the Gulf state allowing young college graduates to seek jobs as domestic workers there. Intended to be a response to high rates of unemployment in Uganda, the bilateral agreement included protections for their workers, including a minimum wage, an eight-hour working day and health insurance.
“But these were never enforced,” said Rothna Begum, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who focuses on women’s rights in the Middle East.
Officially, the Ugandan government says that 500 women have traveled to Saudi Arabia to be employed as domestic workers since July. But the Ugandan media reported that more than 100 Ugandans a day were traveling to the gulf nation for work. Many of them were probably being trafficked.
Migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States fall under the Kafala system, a visa sponsorship system that gives employers total control. For example, a worker who wants to transfer jobs needs her employer’s permission to do so. Because of this, many women are trapped with abusive employers.
“I’ve interviewed many domestic workers who told me they didn’t earn salaries for up to two to three years sometimes,” Begum said. “But, as they hadn’t been paid, they couldn’t afford to leave. Women have told me about all kinds of abuses. Some were physically abused or sexually harassed. Some worked up to twenty hours a day with no rest or day off. Others were subject to food deprivation.”
The nightmare for these women has been well-documented by rights organisations and Uganda isn’t the first country to enact such a ban. The Philippines, Indonesia and Ethiopia have already banned women from working as maids in Saudi Arabia.
But do these bans actually work?
“As long as there’s a demand for cheap labor and a population that’s struggling and wants to get be employed, these things will continue,” said Agnes Igoye, the deputy chair of the National Prevention of Trafficking in Persons office in Uganda.
Igoye, who has worked to end trafficking as part of the Clinton Global Initiative, says that effective oversight is the only way to ensure the women’s safety.
“Countries really need to sit down and invest in developing systems,” she said.
If these kinds of protections are effectively implemented, Ali Abdi, the coordinator for the Uganda-based office of the International Organization for Migration, says it is a win-win-win situation.
“If this system was worked out, all parties would benefit,” he said. “I would say that Uganda is going in the right direction. They’ve made some important efforts to set up a national taskforce to combat human trafficking.”
While the ban may not solve everything, experts agree on one thing: it does raise awareness about the issue. Over the next few months, Uganda says it will be looking further into these reports of abuses. So hopefully, the ban is just a first step to safeguarding the rights of these women.