KAMPALA – The government of Uganda announced on Friday the suspension of a Labour Agreement protocol with the Saudi Arabian authorities as one of the avenues to improve the welfare and rights of immigrant workers.
In 2017, Uganda entered into a five-year labour agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that targeted the promotion of the welfare of immigrant workers.
Statistics at the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development show that Saudi Arabia is the biggest labour externalisation destination in the Middle East, employing over 150,000 migrant workers from Uganda.
However, there have been persistent complaints about the mistreatment of Ugandan labourers – including but not limited to confiscation of their passports; denial of off days and leave; decline to provide return air tickets, and delay or non-payment of salary.
The bilateral agreement is due to expire on December 27, 2022, and the line ministry has tasked the Saudi Arabia authorities to address the grievances of Ugandans if both countries’ relationship is to be renewed.
The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Gender, Aggrey David Kibenge notified recruitment agencies, pre-departure orientation and training institutions, on Friday that the bilateral labour agreement with Saudi Arabia had been suspended, effective immediately pending re-negotiations.
“This is therefore to inform you that clearance and deployment of migrant workers, approval of job orders, and training of migrant workers under this Agreement are suspended with immediate effect. “Note, however, that this temporary suspension does not affect migrant workers whose travel had already been cleared by the ministry, prior to this date, and are in possession of signed contracts, travel tickets, and entry visas,” read Kibenge’s letter, in parts.
The suspension of the agreement has met strong criticism from labour externalisation companies describing the abrupt move as disruptive to their business and against the provisions of the Agreement.
The agreement is automatically renewed upon expiry but parties intending to suspend or terminate the contract, can issue a notice at least six months giving reasons for their intention. The 60 days are used to address any grievances raised by either party, or a decision on future relationships taken.
A source at one of the labour recruitment agencies revealed on Friday that they had held a meeting with officials from the Ministry of Gender, and agreed that proper procedures be followed if the suspension is to be effected.
Kibenge said that they had tabled their demands before Saudi Kingdom officials, hoping that their demands shall be met by the close of 60 days.
He indicated that they have already confirmed receipt of the notice and are working on resolving the matter. He said that for a long time they had asked the Saudi officials to respect the provisions of their bilateral agreement, especially those regarding protecting immigrant workers and ensuring their welfare but their efforts yielded minimal results.
Kibenge also said that the government is pursuing other efforts for the protect Ugandan workers. In the pipeline is the recruitment of labour attaches to follow up on Ugandan labourers abroad, strengthen embassy offices and establish a call centre in Uganda to which, complaints about the welfare of Ugandan workers can be reported for action.
The cabinet resolved to issue a supplementary budget of Ugx4b towards the cause but Kibenge said that the Ministry of Finance was yet to respond. He was however, optimistic that when Uganda strengthens its presence in Saudi Arabia, it shall easily monitor its citizens working there and promote their welfare.
Martha Okumu Ringa – the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under which all agreements with foreign countries are entered, confirmed that the Saudis had a running bilateral labour agreement with Uganda and that the issues around the effective implementation of the agreement and Suspension plans shall be handled by the relevant offices.
Ronnie Mukundane – the Spokesperson of the Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies-UERA declined to comment, saying that with the on-going negotiations, the matter was beyond their control.