When the government of Uganda announced that Entebbe International Airports would be open effective 01st October 2020 members of the Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA) were among the most excited.
Many of them, according to Ronnie Mukundane the UAERA spokesperson, had braved the 7 months of airport closure, keeping their costs to the bare minimum- trying to not to close office as they still had an obligation to especially keep their customer services desks open to deal with inquiries from parents as well as the thousands of Ugandan workers abroad, mainly in the Middle East.
“Our over 200 members had unfulfilled orders in excess of 35,000 workers and many remained open, hoping and praying that the airports will reopen and work resumes,” Mukundane told this reporter by phone, adding: “But we were all shocked that when the airports reopened, there was reluctance by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development to permit us to resume work, like other segments of business.”
The recruitment firms were riled by a press release, issued by the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Aggrey David Kibenge, in which he said that even though in the wake of the airports reopening, the ministry had received clearance requests for migrant workers intending to return to their workplaces the ministry was still reviewing an earlier suspension on externalisation of labour.
Mr Kibenge went on to say that his ministry, had written to the Minister of Health seeking advice on the feasibility of reopening externalization of labour, within the COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures put in place by Government of Uganda and other authorities in the respective destination countries.
To the dismay of the labour companies, Kibenge further said that: “Even if clearance is given by the Ministry of Health and the National Taskforce on COVID-19, it is our considered view that the reopening should be phased. The first phase will start with clearance of all categories of migrant workers other than domestic workers.”
The PS explained that “the slight delay in reopening of externalisation of domestic workers is because the Government would like to put in place additional measures aimed at promoting and protecting the welfare and rights of Ugandan domestic workers abroad.”
“To this end, the Ministry will engage all stakeholders including the private recruitment companies,” he said, adding: “We are aware that many potential migrants are eager to travel abroad for work. However, we also recognize that the world is still afflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, all citizens are reminded that stopping the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives is the most critical thing at the moment. We therefore pray for the continued patience, understanding and cooperation of the public and particularly the externalisation of labour stakeholders like the recruitment companies.”
Asked why the domestic workers were being locked out and not the other categories, Hon Frank Tumwebaze, the MoGLSD minister told CEO East Africa Magazine that this was because domestic workers were most vulnerable.
“These domestic workers need pre-departure training since most of them are not skilled at all and yet most training institutions are closed,” he said.
Suspending domestic workers is tantamount to suspending the entire industry
But in a stern statement released by the UAERA on 16th October 2020, the association said that this position by the ministry is tantamount to suspending the entire industry, which largely depends on the export of domestic labour.
“The Ministry can confirm from the statistics in its records that almost 90 percent of labour recruitment companies are engaged in externalization of domestic workers. Whereas the licences are issued for general categories, the dynamics in the market have dictated the categories the labour companies can reasonably engage in; in this case domestic workers. Therefore, the proposed phased reopening of the sector in the manner proposed is as good as extending the suspension,” the association’s Chairman, Baker Akantambira, angrily said in their media statement.
The association said they were open to exploring modalities of safeguarding Ugandans and having a robust and well regulated industry, but this can only be achieved with stakeholder engagement.
“In all this, neither the labour companies nor their leadership under the Association are being consulted,” Mr. Akantambira further said, adding: “We appeal to the line Ministry to effectively engage the Association (UAERA) and the labour recruitment companies in a bid to collectively find sustainable solutions that will see the industry function with each stakeholder playing its role.”
On behalf of the association, Akantambira further said that while they were open to engaging with the ministry and all other stakeholders on the subject of re-opening the industry, in the meantime, all the 200 member companies of the UAERA had decided to close their offices.
“Going forward, the general public is advised that following the closure of labour companies, they should consult the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development on all aspects pertaining to externalization of migrant workers. All foreign partners and principals are advised to seek further information and consult the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development, respective Ugandan embassies and other Government Agencies,” said Akantambira.
Counting multibillion losses
According to the association, to date, there are more than 165,000 Ugandans in the Middle East under the 200 companies, with annual remittances in excess of USD700 million (UGX2.8 trillion. Other than the Ugandans working abroad, the sector also directly employs more than 4,000 Ugandans locally. Indirectly they sector also contributes up to UGX2.2 billion per month, paid to other service providers and government agencies for services such as passports, Interpol charges, bank charges, vaccination, COV1D-19 PCR certificate fee etc.
“This translates into billions of shillings for over 5,000 migrant workers that are externalized every month,” says Akantambira, adding: “35,000 employment opportunities for Ugandans have been lost in the last 7 months.”
Mukundane also says that other than the 35,000 Ugandans who are ready to be deployed in fulfilment of existing contracts, there is now growing concern within the sector that the prolonged closure of legal labour migration is fuelling an increase in human trafficking as has been witnessed since the airport was opened on 1st October 2020.
“Thirty One (31) ladies destined for the Middle East were intercepted by the Aviation Police on 12th October 2020 and Forty Four (44) intercepted on the 15th October 2020 as they were being trafficked to the Middle East. These and many more cases of human trafficking that could have not been documented are happening because the industry is under closure,” says Mukundane.
The association is also unhappy that many a time the MoGSLD does not consult the association who are their major stakeholders.
“Whereas the MoGLSD is the line Ministry charged with the regulation of the industry, we would like to express our concern that many a time the Ministry takes sweeping decisions without engaging the respective labour companies directly or through their Association (UAERA). It is not in doubt that labour exporting companies are key stakeholders in the industry, therefore, whereas the suspension of externalization of labour was inevitable given the prevailing conditions (globally), the current move by the Ministry to unilaterally undertake measures directly affecting the labour companies is disturbing,” says the association.