Weak laws blamed for exploitation of Ugandans abroad

KAMPALA – Police are complaining that weak domestic labor laws have led to the exploitation of Ugandan laborers abroad, hoping to raise awareness among Ugandans about the dangers of exploitation – sexual or otherwise.

"The regulations for labor export are very weak; they don't provide for crimes and offences. It's more of an administrative arrangement," Assistant Police Commissioner Moses Binoga, who coordinates the Internal Affairs Ministry's anti-human trafficking task force, told Anadolu Agency.

Uganda's Gender, Labor and Social Development Ministry is mandated with licensing – and monitoring – companies that export labor. As of last December 31, only 31 such companies were licensed to operate by the Ugandan government. But the 2006 Employment Act does not cover crimes and offences. "The law on human trafficking doesn't talk about labor export either," Binoga noted. "It becomes very difficult for enforcers like the police to enforce what is not in the law."

Currently, the government lacks records on the number of citizens who have traveled abroad for work.

Authorities only register complaints lodged by laborers once the latter return to Uganda. Binoga said the issue of sexual exploitation was difficult since most victims weren't willing to talk. "Few report [incidents of sexual exploitation] because they think they're going to be exposed and it may affect their social life," he explained.

In 2013, 63 girls reported cases of sexual exploitation while another 215 reported other cases of labor exploitation. The Gender and Labor Ministry is currently reviewing the laws to provide tough penalties for violators and make it easier for police to enforce the law.

-Awareness-

The assistant police commissioner said they were trying to promote awareness among Ugandans about their labor rights. "It's their lives they're wasting; they should not act desperately and understand the tricks of traffickers," Binoga said.

While at the official's office, two young women in their early 20s anxiously awaited permission to travel abroad. Our reporter overheard them making frantic phone calls in which they asked an elderly gentleman to act as their "uncle." "We should only answer what he asks and not sign anything we don't understand," one told the other.

In their open interview with Binoga, which our reporter was allowed to attend, the assistant police commissioner asked the girls where they were travelling and why. "We want to go to Thailand," they both said. "I was there in July 2013 and I only go there to do business," one of them added. When asked the reason for travelling, the girls answered in unison: "We sell clothes and have a small shop in downtown Kampala."

Not convinced by their answers, the police official asked them to come the next day and show him their shop. He also asked them for a letter from the landlord that allegedly owned the shop. Irritated, the girls quickly said the request was "impossible." "How can the landlord give us a letter when we don't even get receipts to show we pay rent?" asked one.

Smelling trouble, the assistant police commissioner warned the young girls of what could be in store for them abroad. "When we give you permission to travel, you'll get there and this uncle of yours isn't the one who's going to sleep with six men," he said bluntly. The conversation ended with the girls, escorted by their "uncle," leaving in silence and looking disappointed.

Binoga told AA that it's very rare for girls seeking travel clearance to open up on the first interaction. "The first day they will tell you the story that they have been told to stick to," he said. "They would say, 'We are going to work because we are suffering, we have no jobs,' although some of them leave their jobs here and have been promised better pay," the police official added. He said immigration and security officers at the country's entry and exit points were also on alert. "These officers will interview you and see whether the reasons as to why you're going are genuine. If they are not satisfied, then they can delay you and advise you it's not safe for you to go," he added.

-Problematic countries-

The assistant police commissioner said there were arrangements with what he described as "stubborn countries" to enable the two governments to monitor the working conditions of expatriate Ugandans.

The police have advised policy-makers to consider prohibiting Ugandan nationals from seeking employment in some countries, such as Kuwait. "We have a problem with rescuing Ugandans," said Binoga. "The Kuwait government is uncooperative and their laws give a lot of power to [Kuwaiti] nationals over [expatriate] workers."

India, Thailand, China, Malaysia and Oman are also perceived as centers of potential sexual exploitation under the guise of domestic employment. Kuwait, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, too, are infamous for labor exploitation.

Binoga acknowledges the challenges posed by the phenomenon, which he attributed to "the critical push-and-pull factors of poverty, unemployment and the wish for a better life outside Uganda." He cited growing demand for cheap labor and cheap sex. "This means the business is here to stay; it's a new aspect for Uganda with its weak laws to manage," he said.

Binoga stressed that the authorities were trying to improve existing laws related to the issue while also providing more training to law enforcement personnel.

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