• Authored By: EPRC Uganda
Jan 26, 2023

The government has made clear its intention to “negotiate better terms” after temporarily suspending a bilateral labour agreement it first entered into with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in 2017.

Ms Betty Amongi, the labour minister, told Monitor that the government intends to make the most of a 60-day window, with a virtual meeting between Kampala and Riyadh already lined up for tomorrow.

“I am in contact with the ministers of Labour and International Relations from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and we have agreed to conclude negotiations and signing within four months,” Ms Amongi revealed at the weekend, adding, “We also agreed that we shall put temporary measures to facilitate labour externalisation during negotiations.”

Saudi Arabia is one of the popular destinations for migrant workers from Uganda. Hard information from the Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies (UAERA) indicates that 85,000 Ugandans were externalised to the largest Middle Eastern country by area last year. That figure has already been eclipsed this year, with 96,892 migrant workers and counting having headed to the country.

Datasets from the UAERA indicate that women form the vast bulk of the migrant workers. In 2021, they totalled 75,000.

The temporary suspension came into effect on December 23, with Mr Aggrey Kibenge, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MGLSD), revealing that the decision is “pending re-negotiations of the agreement.”

“Furthermore, the same Article 10 provides that suspension or termination shall be without prejudice to the individual employment contracts existing at the time of suspension or termination,” Mr Kibenge revealed in a December 23 letter.

Ms Amongi told this publication that the bilateral labour agreement would have “automatically renew[ed] for five years” had the government not moved to effect a temporary suspension. A 2022 study by the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) revealed that many challenges continue to best Uganda’s labour externalisation programme. This, the centre added, is despite a string of “policy and regulatory instruments aimed to protect the rights of migrant workers through stringent licensing requirements and placement procedures.”

EPRC cited “limited negotiations for BLAs (bilateral labour agreements) that accommodate highly skilled and specialised job placements; inadequate monitoring; inadequate staffing at both the … Foreign Affairs and … Gender [ministries; as well as] limited budgetary allocations to execute the stated activities within the Guidelines on Recruitment and Placement of Uganda Migrant Workers Abroad, 2015.”

Mr Kibenge clarified that the temporary suspension will not affect migrant workers whose travel had already been cleared by the ministry before December 23 as well as those in possession of signed contracts, travel tickets and entry visas. This, though, has not assuaged the UAERA that has asked for the lifting of the suspension.

UAERA up in arms

Through their lawyers, Kampala Associated Advocates (KAA), UAERA contend that: “. . . The clear import of Article 10 of the BLA is that the BLA can only be suspended upon notice through diplomatic channels, otherwise it shall be renewed.”

UAERA adds: “Secondly, and most importantly, where the government issues a notice to suspend or terminate, the agreement remains valid for a period of 60 days after receipt of notice of suspension.”

It proceeds to note that “this means that there is no legal basis for immediate suspension of clearance and deployment of migrant workers to Saudi Arabia. This is because the BLA still survives for 60 days after any notice.”

According to UAERA, their clients already have ongoing arrangements. It further revealed that scores of migrant workers are already being processed for travel to Saudi Arabia under ongoing transactions and that the 60-day period should ensure that such ongoing commitments are honoured.

“This is to request that the immediate suspension is rescinded immediately in light of the provisions of BLA and in view of the non-observance of the natural justice, as well as the disruptive and costly effects of the immediate suspension,” a letter from KAA addressed to Mr Kibenge states.

Uganda also signed a BLA with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2019. Mr Ronnie Mukundane, the UAERA spokesperson, told Monitor that Saudi Arabia takes the biggest chunk of migrant workers from Uganda. It’s believed the two-year head start the KSA has over UAE insofar as entering a BLA with Uganda is concerned is what makes it statistically the preferred destination for Uganda’s migrant workers.

Read our recent report on labour externalisation: Labour Externalisation in Uganda: Implications for the Agro-Industrialisation Agenda

Mr Mukundane said Ugandans tend to avoid Qatar and Bahrain because they have no BLAs with Uganda. Ugandans in the Middle East are believed to remit home $900 million (about Shs3.3 trillion) annually as per Mr Mukundane. He adds that 60 percent of that figure comes from Saudi Arabia.

In a 2022 policy brief titled ‘Policy actions to ensure sustainable labour externalisation in Uganda’, the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) described as “daunting” the task to rejig Uganda’s labour externalisation programme.

Ultimately, the centre proffered five policy actions to “ameliorate” a string of problems the policy brief illuminated.

It pushed for the creation of “effective monitoring systems” that have a finger on the pulse of migrant workers insofar as “their health status, wages and payments, and general conditions and terms of work” are concerned.

Similarly, it pitched for a strengthening of the data systems “to generate comprehensive data on labour externalisation.” The scope of the data it wants the government to capture includes “education levels,

skills and skills potential, returnees, and … investment aspirations” of migrant workers.

EPRC also wants the government to “recruit labour attachés in major cities/countries where Ugandans are working.” It stated in no uncertain terms that “the support systems from the Ugandan Embassy need to be revamped.”

The centre also suggested that the budget allocation to the labour externalisation unit in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development be increased “to facilitate their mandate.”

To top things up, EPRC’s policy brief asked that the Labour Externalisation Bill be fast tracked into law.

This story was published in Daily Monitor on December 27, 2022

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