By Agnes Asiimwe
Government is helpless as Ugandans are out-competed, investors bring their staff, senior posts held by foreigners
Two years from now, if negotiations succeed, the East African Community Common Market Protocol should come in force on January 1, 2010.
The protocol will allow free movement of services, capital, labour and goods in the five EAC countries of Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
In Uganda, however, a perceived influx of foreign workers has become contentious.
Lucrative sectors like banking, advertising, oil industry, insurance, capital markets, breweries, and even the media are said to be filling up with foreigners.
“At the National Insurance Corporation (NIC) you will think you are in Lagos,” says former MP Aggrey Awori, “It’s going to be worse with the common market. People will bring their own to manage.
If we don’t work hard, we will be left out.”
Awori says for any federation to be meaningful, member governments should not put restrictions on movement of labour. But he adds: “There should be a law on how investors should employ locals.”
But even the unskilled sector jobs are not spared.
Illegal immigrations, porous borders, corruption, and the lack of a national identification document pour unregistered aliens onto the job market annually.
The National Citizenship and Immigration Board chairman, Mr Jotham Tumwesigye says illegal immigration and bribery at border posts and the immigration headquarters in Kampala is being addressed.
But Dr Francis Mangeni, an advisor on African integration and international trade policy, says until the government takes a position on the problem of foreign workers and speaks to other governments, the problem will remain. “These are private sector decisions, they are simply recruiting people basing on decisions that they take themselves,” said Mangeni.
According to Mangeni, Uganda, like several other countries, needs to adopt an economic needs test where an employer only hires foreigners if there are no qualified locals.
Mangeni also says there are “clever” ways of keeping foreigners out. “Uganda recognises qualifications from everywhere yet there are countries that don’t recognise foreign qualifications.”
How possible is it for Ugandans to get employment in neighbouring Kenya, Tanzania or Rwanda?
“I don’t think Kenya and Tanzania are as liberal,” said Mangeni.
According to Awori, getting a job in Kenya is an uphill task. “It’s very hard, except in medicine and engineering. That’s why we fly patients to Kenya to be treated by Ugandans because top flight surgeons in Kenya are Ugandans,” he said.
Serapio Rukundo, MP for Kabale Municipality says that while there are more Ugandan professionals working in Rwanda in forestry, finance and other sectors, Uganda is more liberal than Rwanda. “It is harder entering Rwanda with Ugandan registered vehicles than for Rwandan vehicles to enter Uganda,” said Rukundo. This liberalism, he says, will benefit Uganda in the long run. In South Sudan there is rising anti-Uganda sentiment and many Ugandans find the environment hostile for them to work and do business.
But not everyone backs the lock-out-foreigners strategy.
Mr Patrick Bitature, Chairman of Uganda Investment Authority (UIA) happily employs foreigners in his Protea Hotel in Kampala.
“My head chef, my general manager, accountant, are foreigners because I use a world class system,” he said.
He says Uganda has a big skills gap and to correct the problem, Ugandans need to acknowledge it.
“Ugandans can do it but we need Ugandans who are committed, disciplined, that are going to be there Monday to Monday, but Ugandans will tell you they have a lumbe (funeral rites ceremony) and have to go away.”
As for the banking industry that’s currently dominated by Kenyans and Nigerians, Bitature says it’s because Ugandan managers cannot succeed in their home environment. “We put too much pressure on them whereas when you put them in a foreign environment they perform better,” he said.
One such banker is Julius Kakeeto who is in a senior position at Citi Bank in London. The banks are being managed by foreigners because the job requires objective managers who will, for example, hire people only on merit.
“We should have a welcoming attitude, this hostility we have of being primitive and saying Uganda is for Ugandans will not help us grow,” said Bitature, “We are earning over Shs 1billion in forex from people in the Diaspora. Let’s open up and learn to compete because the barriers have fallen, it’s a global world today.”
Bitature cites Kampala Serena Hotel which got run down as Nile Hotel by Ugandans and has now been reinvented as a world class hotel.
He is not bothered that at the Serena Hotel, which is principally owned by the Aga Khan, 98 per cent of management positions are held by Kenyans”” the general manager, the group accountant, the health club manager, laundry manager, senior executive housekeeper, reservations manager, front office manager, rooms division manager, food and beverages manager, and two restaurant managers.
However, Ms Margaret Kigozi, executive director of UIA, says the foreign workers will reduce with time.
“MTN came in with 50 expatriates and within a few years they were down to 10 and today they have four expatriates – because Ugandans learn quickly,” she says.
She quotes a 2008 joint survey done by UIA and the World Bank that showed only 0.04 per cent foreign or expatriate workers in Uganda.
Investors call the shots
Although statistics show that Ugandan-owned firms create more jobs annually than foreign investors, the government is accused of creating resentment by favouring the outsiders.
“When investors come here, we should give them conditions. Government is not doing that because of the president’s fear that they will go elsewhere,” said Aggrey Awori.
Mr Gordon Wavamunno, a Ugandan tycoon with a string of businesses, advises the government to treat all investors the same whether they are Ugandans or foreigners.
Part of the “foreign investor love” results from the government’s fear of losing them.
Kigozi said UIA only allows into Uganda skilled workers that the investors cannot get locally. But Tumwesigye says when investors insist on bringing in many workers, Uganda is in no position to object.
“When you refuse to allow in the people, they say they won’t invest,” said Tumwesigye, “There is a conflicting position where on one hand we want investors to come and on the other hand, we want Ugandans to be employed. We have to strike a balance.”
He gives an example of Sameer Agriculture and Livestock Ltd, the makers of Fresh Dairy milk products.
“We tried to stop them but they said they had an understanding with the government to employ expatriate staff. We accepted, we had no choice,” he says.
Tumwesigye said Uganda cannot impose an “˜economic needs test’.
“We can’t impose harsh terms because investors will not come. You have to be realistic and accept people from outside although you may feel that Ugandans could have done these jobs.”
Job tensions are not unique to Uganda. In 2005, Tanzania expelled eight Kenyan editors and advertising managers of Mwananchi Communications Limited, a company principally owned by the Nation Media Group, for violating labour and immigration laws. Under the 1997 Investment Act, foreign investors in Tanzania are allowed to bring in not more than five senior managerial position expatriates as part of their investment.
Tanzania is not hiding its discomfort with the EAC Common Market protocol. Dar es Salaam argues that Kenya has more qualified manpower and will dominate the local market.
Across the isle, however, Rwanda has eliminated the requirement of work permits while Kenya has removed the requirement for Rwandans.