HAVE LABOR EXPORTING FIRMS BEEN MISUNDERSTOOD? TAMALE MIRUNDI SAYS SO; CHIPPING IN HIS USUAL MAFIA CONSPIRACY
By James B RutaramukaIn his regular media appearances, Tamale Mirundi has lately picked on a new topic to discuss and this relates to the ongoing clean-up efforts targeting the Labour Externalization Industry. In the past two weeks at least three labor externalization firms have endured security raids onto their premises often resulting into arrest of top officials. In his usual conspiratorial approach, Mirundi wonders what has changed lately to warrant all this swift intervention? He claims this is classic mafia style at work. He says, with the acquiescence of sections of the media, the entire industry has been distorted and demonized before the very public it has been seeking to salvage from poverty. Could there be some iota of truth in this or this is merely vintage Mirundi doing his thing?
Ugandans seeking work abroad in Middle East countries began in early 2000s as the US sought to pacify the post-Saddam Iraq. In 2004 many Ugandans were recruited by private security companies for very lucrative work in Iraq and later Afghanistan. The hirers were Americans but who operated through local agents that existed as private security companies including Askar Uganda Ltd, KHM International Agency and DrenShak International etc. Those pioneering Ugandans made good cash because the requirements weren’t as rigorous as today as the industry got regulated. Visas and air tickets acquisition would all be shouldered by American hirers. The recruited Ugandans later grumbled that the firms were cutting off too much from the remuneration Americans were paying per person.
That was the wrangling all the way to late 2000s into 2010 when the demand for such labor started dwindling amidst cries of poor pay by Ugandan recruits. That is when little-known businessmen shrewdly began positioning themselves to fill the vacuum resulting from the intrigue the security firms directed at themselves. Unlike the likes of Askar’s Moses Matsiko that had good connections, the new entrants were self-made with no godfathers to write home about. Examples of these pioneering upstarts included Security Link, The Veterans Association, 2 Niles PR and Middle East Consultants. The number went on growing to over 150 the Ministry of Labour, Gender and Social Development confirms to have licensed as of 2018.
But shortly after, the Labour Ministry which regulates and controls labour externalization sub sector (on behalf of GoU) stopped granting licenses to new companies because the sector was becoming over saturated and feared chaos in case some of them became unviable on failing to get business. But even then, serious challenges lingered gradually constraining the lucrative business the post-Askar business pioneers had ventured into.
And indeed, the pioneers who fought hard to see the externalization of labour open doors in the Middle East countries from 2010 onwards had their rough share of experience to bring the industry where it is today. Human traffickers perceived them to be competitors and bad news that had to be confronted early. The human traffickers always came off as cheaper and easier option for many Ugandan job-hunters who didn’t the hassle of having to seek government clearance. Going through properly-licensed labour agencies required parting with some millions for acquisition of visas, air tickets costs and agency commission. This was also different from the case of those who had been taken to Iraq and Afghanistan in the previous years as in their case one only had to be able to speak basic English and physical fitness.
As the licensed companies got busy in ferrying off Ugandans to United Arab Emirates and other Middle East countries, the effects of human trafficking started to emerge and fast rising where young Ugandans who had been trafficked through Kenya to countries like Malaysia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Scary images and video began circulating on internet of young Ugandans being tortured in places where they had been abandoned by human traffickers. Without adequate scrutiny, media began carrying reports showing licensed labor agencies as negligent and taking Ugandans to torture houses in the Middle East. The public followed cue and their MPs as well all castigating labour externalization agencies for this negligence, exploitation and selfishness. It took long for the sophisticated scribes to investigate and realize the difference between those taken by human traffickers and those by lawful operators.
The Museveni government weighed the political consequences, as its opponents jumped on media reports to demonize it like never before. Government was mostly bashed for failing in its regulation function. As of 2017, the only option government considered plausible (having been demonized by media reports) was directing a ban on continued externalization of labor to Middle East countries.
Remarkably, the ban came in effect at a time when licensed companies were about to start signing orders to take girls to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in a deal that was supposed to be lucrative since tickets and visas were and are still being paid by the employer from the host country. The same Middle East firms taking the girls would also meet the commission agency fees for the recruiting firms here in which case the girls are only required to show up with their passports for recruitment. The ban therefore still affected the licensed companies but didn’t affect traffickers because they continued sneaking desperate girls to Middle East countries through Kenya. It was only in 2018 that the domestic workers (housemaids) business was streamlined resulting into the ban being lifted.
The coordination of local agencies and serious engagements between the GoU and the other host governments also culminated into signing of bilateral agreements stipulating respective obligations. As GoU went about streamlining regulation, the licensed local recruiting firms weren’t just napping. They made efforts aimed at self-regulation and peer review by incorporating an association called “Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies [UAERA].” UAERA’s responsibility was to ensure member companies monitored and reported back on the situation of Ugandans whom they had taken to work in the middle East countries. This minimized reports of torture, harassment and contract breaches that had become rampant on social media.
The Association was also to help government to detect and fight human trafficking which has since reduced drastically. As all these efforts went on over the years to streamline the industry, labour externalization increasingly became profitable and companies started advertising aggressively after getting big orders. That was the media too cashed in big time. The media awareness attracted more Ugandans to join the business. That is how companies like Security Link, KLM, Middle East Consultants etc became house hold names with each of them on average taking 50 people per week.
THINGS FALL APART
But as the industry grew and companies started making huge profits, some powerful actors who Mirundi accuses of thinking they are entitled to cashing in on everything lucrative in this town plotted having their share too.
The media pundit says they realized that they were missing out on some money even when they didn’t know how the industry was being run and the challenges associated with it. Much-followed Mirundi alleges that between just early 2018 and April 2019 the number of registered companies curiously grew from mere 61 to 150. Mirundi says this symbolized the arrival of mafia actors and their chaos in the hitherto peaceful industry. Indeed, it’s at this time that the Ministry of Labour felt registration of many new entrants would come with many other challenges and consequently stopped issuing new licenses. The idea was to first orient new entrants into the industry.
The ban was communicated when over 100 new applications from companies owned by former ministers, politicians and big shots in government had been submitted to the ministry. There were over 15 companies awaiting license after paying the mandatory Shs50m bank guarantee to the ministry. One of the requirements to apply for a license is paying Shs50m as bank guarantee and advertising in newspapers intentions to acquire license and indicating names of Directors of the company. This is meant to ensure transparency in the licensing regime but the requirement (innocent and well-intentioned as it was) exposed many prominent politicians and government officials as their names were published in newspapers.
Some people who had applied have since threatened to take legal action against government over failure to get licenses after paying Shs50m in bank guarantees. It’s understood that over 10 companies that had almost reached finalization of all the licensing requirements will be licensed before this year ends after which no any other license will be issued by the Labour Ministry.
PLOTTING NEW OFFENSIVES
After being frustrated at the licensing level, Mirundi says some of the powerful actors hatched a plan to neutralize owners of the already existing and well established labour companies. Some of the powerful former and currently active politicians reached out to some of the thriving companies offering billions in return to be shareholders and partake of the proceeds from the very lucrative trade. In some extreme cases, the powerful politicians offered buying out former owners completely and allow them two years transition period after which they can exit completely and allow the companies to rebrand and take on new business names. Naturally, none of the approached owners of existing firms accepted being bought out on seeing how lucrative the industry had become.
Mirundi says the mafia political heavyweights didn’t easily accept such rejection. Some of the anger was directed at UAERA executives and Labor Ministry officials who were seen as not cooperating enough to enable powerful politicians get their way into the lucrative trade.
Mirundi says somewhere along the way sections of the media were coopted to give excessive publicity to the clamp down by Afande Edith Nakalema on some of the labor externalization firms and agencies. Mirundi says all this would break down proprietors of some of these companies while getting them demonized to justify sanctioning by Parliament on whose resolutions heavy weight politicians keenly interested would ride to finally get their way into the industry.
Examples include the 98 young ladies who pitched camp at Kibuli CID headquarters for more than a week after one of the owners of the company that was preparing to take them abroad was arrested. This was at a time the company officially says their visas were being prepared to be taken to Arab countries to begin work. While at Kibuli CID headquarters, the young girls addressed reporters demanding government must address their plight since its agents had arrested the gentleman who was trying to get them work.
As of now the same girls remain stranded at Kurthur Training Center having had their passports confiscated. Other companies like Eagles Supervision have been dragged to civil courts in a process that risks damaging their reputations beyond redemption. Mirundi says big offices keep mobilizing for maximum media coverage of the perceived scandals bedeviling some of the UAERA member companies. The conspiracy theorist maintains all this is aimed at destroying the entire industry to pave way for the mafia agents to surface in future purporting to be rebuilding and pacifying things. It’s also being alleged by UAERA members that, to their consternation, those fighting them have previously used proximity to the big office in the land to legitimize their fight. That a few days ago, a Toyota Hiace Drone vehicle (UG 2665C) participated in delivering scribes to ensure maximum coverage of the court session as some of the previously arrested Labor Externalization officials were being arraigned for trial. It’s further being claimed some powerful officials in GoU equally cheered as opposition spokesperson Betty Nambooze Bakireke aimed her verbal artillery at UAERA member companies. This was on the same day the Mowzey Radio murder suspect Troy was being tried in the same Entebbe Court.
At some point the Prison officers jokingly inquired what this large army of scribes were doing at court after the high profile Mowzey trial had adjourned. The scribes said they had been tasked to cover the Labor Externalization story which they confessed wasn’t as juicy as that of Mowzey. They claimed the editors had been specifically prompted to give prominence to the Labor Externalization story even when in their individual estimation it wasn’t that big and prominent. The anxiety that has resulted from the recent raids on labor externalization firms has resulted into increased bureaucracy in the way Ugandans leaving for labor in Middle East are vetted at their airport. Mirundi says all this is aimed at making the process very inconvenient so that Ugandan job-seekers become alienated and shun the existing firms. James B Rutaramuka is a freelance journalist.