Suicide soars among Ugandan migrants abused in the Middle East
Kampala— Ugandan domestic worker Shahira begged her employer in Oman to let her go home, after he sexually harassed her, and his wives spat at her and threw soiled nappies and water at her.
But her pleas only triggered further brutality.
"He was holding a knife … he threw it," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, demonstrating how she ducked to avoid the blade as it flew towards her.
"It cut me here," she said, declining to give her real name, pointing to scars on her wrists.
Shahira is one of a growing number of Ugandans returning home from Oman with tales of abuse, such as employers confiscating their passports and phones, denying them food and working long hours without receiving their full salaries.
In 2016, Uganda banned its nationals from working in Oman. But a parliamentary report documenting the deaths of 48 Ugandans in the Middle East since January — 34 by committing suicide — shows the ban is being flouted, sparking calls for more effective action.
"We’ve never seen a big number like this committing suicide," David Abala, one of the parliamentarians who produced the report, said.
"Suicide means you have been going through a very difficult time. Life has not been bearable, the only hope is to die."
Labour minister Janat Mukwaya rejected the figure and said only five people had died, according to local media reports.
Oman’s foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment.
’You’re my slave’ Shahira’s experience illustrates the challenge of cracking down on international trafficking networks in Uganda, as increasing numbers of people are migrating to find employment.
About 80,000 Ugandans work in the Middle East, according to the Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies, an umbrella body of licensed firms.
As Asia has increased domestic worker protections and salary requirements, recruiters are turning to East Africa, where rules are weaker and people will accept less pay, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.
Shahira was recruited through a friend of her uncle, who introduced her to four men in an office in downtown Kampala.
They promised her a job in a restaurant in Oman, earning 1-million Uganda shillings ($275) a month. She believed the company was legitimate after they showed her some certificates and only realised she had been duped when she reached Oman.
Shahira said she slept on a tiny mattress on the floor and got up at 4am each day to work in two different wives’ houses.
Her skin peeled off from laying down paving stones in the searing heat, she said, and her employer threw a bucket of used sanitary pads and nappies at her when she complained.
Even the grandchildren, aged four and nine, were abusive.
"When you’re sleeping they would throw things at you and pour water on your body," she said.
When Shahira asked her employer to release her before the end of the two-year contract she was forced to sign on arrival in Oman, he said she would have to refund him for her visa and fees paid to the recruitment agency.
"[He said:] ‘I gave them their money, they sold you to me. You’re my slave, you’re going to work here as my slave’," she said, from her family home in a Kampala slum, where she has lived since she was repatriated in July.
"I felt like: ‘I am going to die here’ … I suffered so much," she said, adding that her employer confiscated her phone so her family did not know where she was.
Abusive About half of Oman’s population of 4-million people are foreigners, with more than 100,000 migrant women working as domestics, mostly from Asian countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and India.
Visa-sponsorship rules in Oman, known as the kafala system — used in several Gulf Arab countries — mean migrant workers cannot change jobs without their employer’s consent and can be charged with absconding if they flee.
Campaigners want Uganda to follow Asia’s example and sign agreements with Gulf states, which would supercede existing labour laws, to better protect its nationals from exploitation.
"It should require the government to provide assistance to workers when they are facing abusive situations [and] ensure that there’s good oversight of recruitment agencies before they leave," said HRW’s Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher.
Migrants should get information about their job and their contractual rights before they get on the aircraft, she said.
Labour ministry official Milton Turyasima said Uganda had drafted agreements with several Gulf countries. "We wanted to start negotiations but we have not," he said. "We’ve been trying to engage them." Shahira was only able to return home after her employer’s daughter persuaded him to release her.
Although she needs medical treatment for back and chest injuries from working in Oman, she is looking for another job.
"I’m just praying so much that I get something good that I can do. Maybe a chance to go abroad — but not to the Middle East," she said.
Reuters/Thomson Reuters Foundation