By Joan Akello
Pius Bigirimana, Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MGLSD) talked to Joan Akello about streamlining the export of labour.
In the past the labour export industry has faced a number of issues including human trafficking, maids complained about mistreatment. What is the ministry doing to formalise this industry considering the Employment (Recruitment of Ugandan migrant workers abroad) regulations, 2005?
There has been public outcry about externalisation of labour because we had not put in place guidelines. There are two categories of people who go to work outside of Uganda- those who go through recruitment companies and those who go without using the firms. If you follow closely most of the people who go through a panya (short cuts) are the ones who end up with troubles. We are saying this must stop. We want employment for our people both local and abroad but whatever employment they get, the terms and conditions must be agreed up on by all of us.
This is why we have embarked on concluding bilateral agreements with these countries. We have got clearance from the Solicitor General over these labour agreements and been in touch with these countries receiving our people; Saud Arabia and Qatar. We agreed on a number of areas. Qatar has got shortage of labour in the construction, health, education, banking, insurance, real estate and transport and the minister asked his legal team to review these agreements without delay. We shall conclude all these agreements with all those countries where Ugandan are working soon.
We are introducing an electronic system where a recruiting firm gives us the people they are recruiting and the companies receiving them. They must show us where they are placing them whether in factories, shops, supermarket, banks, schools, homes. Those people receiving them must also sign an MOU clearly specifying the terms of service. For example, if somebody gets sick who is responsible for treating or dies God forbid who returns the dead body? If the person is tired or no longer willing to work, who takes charge? All these are being worked. It’s a question of time.
Are you expanding this arrangement beyond Qatar and Saudi Arabia?
Yes, to United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Iraq, South Sudan, Somalia and we intend to be proactive to go even to those areas in Canada, India, Pakistan, Malaysia so that our people can take their labour where they can make good money. It is good for us as a country to reduce on unemployment, but it is also good for those who are going because they get money and remit it back
What will you use to gauge the success of these agreements and the industry guidelines?
We have benchmarks and have also agreed that before these people leave they should be prepared, trained and, where possible, recruitment companies there should send representatives to check on the candidates before they leave. The people should know where they are going, what they are going to do and know the cultural setting and beliefs .You should not be asking for alcohol in Iraq. When you are there, 8am is 8am and because buses collect and drop workers at their work places, you will be left behind and will be chased away.
Will government inject money to train these people?
We are not but we will make the conditions conducive. Government’s business is to make sure the environment and legal framework is conducive.
What challenges do you foresee despite efforts to formalise the industry?
Like anything, people are too clever and beat the system. But we have put in place a database which we are sharing with the airport, security, and ministry of Internal Affairs so that we can know what firms are doing.
What redress will migrant workers have such as lodging complaints?
The obligation of each party is clearly marked and the updated guidelines have mechanisms to handle the complaints. You can lodge a complaint against a recruitment firm with the Department of Employment Services or to the nearest Ugandan mission, employers shall provide workers avenues to lodge complaints at their premises without any financial costs, a Migrant Workers’ Committee will be established at the workplace and floor leaders at place of accommodation. They will also organise themselves in associations to give them a sense of belonging through social interaction and even when they return, they can join associations of returnee migrants for mobilisation and creating other income generating activities here. The guidelines therefore spell out the obligation of all stakeholders and the recruiting companies have to meet a number of conditions to get licenses which includes maintaining a minimum account balance of not less than Shs10 million, a Shs50 million bank guarantee, and not supposed to charge candidates visa fees among several other regulations. All these are in place to ensure every person who intends to work abroad is treated fairly, charged only for the accepted documentation costs and also given room to be heard.
To what extent will labour export tackle the high unemployment level in Uganda?
I am struggling to get these young people jobs under the Youth Livelihood Programme. Unemployment will continue to be there whether we want it or not because even developed countries whose economies are powerful have an unemployment problem. The future will judge us very harshly if we do not plan for these young people now. To plan for them to get jobs, make jobs, access funds and also jobs outside because they can be a social, economic and political problem. We are sitting on a time bomb. That is why we are talking about externalisation of labour and the YLP as strategies to address youth unemployment. In just one year we have directly accessed 22,000 youths in 47 districts and will access 40,000 by June this year in 111 districts. It means we would have accessed 60,000 youths in two years and indirectly accessed over 100,000 youths because these groups represent their families, friends and communities. I recently visited a group project, Chanika Youth Development piggery project in Kisoro and this group used the Shs 12 million they received to build houses, buy pigs and have also grown cabbages and sweet potatoes to feed the pigs and also sold cabbages worth Shs 500,000 which I have told them to pay back to reduce on their responsibility burden. They have 20 pigs which produce 200 piglets and after repaying the 20 piglets, they will remain with 180 and may sell 150 of them and make about Shs 10.5 million if each pig is Shs 70,000. The pigs they remain with produce also next year and can therefore repay all the money in one shift and will no longer be working to repay me. This group is also planning to buy a grinding machine for maize to feed the pigs. That means that they could be rearing chicken soon and this is what the President means by wealth creation, we give you money and you multiply it and government eventually gets tax. Eventually these people will become rich, enrich those around them and will fight poverty and unemployment. The struggle is to make the young people to create jobs for themselves and not depend on government all the time.
But have you heard of `tusaba gavumenti etuyambe’?
Yes, but it is a wrong perception. One of the components of the YLP is to have mindset change, to know that it is not only government to give them money and be dependents but independent. This programme is meant to create wealth; you start, expand and add value. This fund is revolving which will move from one group to another, it will not be returned to the Treasury because we have been allowed to open an account at Bank of Uganda in which the fund will be based and people will access it from there. The same amount that was pumped in the system first will be revolving as the other people pay back.
What distinguishes this programme from other empowerment projects like Bona bagagawale?
I am addressing the youth though Social Assistance Grants for Empowerment (SAGE) and Bona bagagawale is for everyone. SAGE is where people are given Shs 25,000 a month. The question is why don’t you empower the young people now so that when they are old they do not come to you for money? I am trying to preempt and avoid that.