The ‘Maid Trade’ – The case of women migrants from Uganda to the Gulf Countries

This blog is related to an upcoming report by the Research and Evidence Facility on women’s labour migration to the Gulf Countries. The full report will be available in September 2022.

I am a single mother of three children trying to fend for myself, the children and build a house. I went to Oman in 2014 through an agent who processed everything for me. I boarded a bus with four other girls to Nairobi where we embarked on the journey to Nairobi. Upon arrival, I was allocated to a family of one man and three wives where I worked for 4 years – each wife had their own three storied house, and I was required to do all the housework. I would wake up at 3am and go to sleep at midnight. I was never given enough food to eat and not allowed to communicate with my children back home resulting in an estranged relationship when I returned.

While in Oman, the women were very abusive, would shove and beat me whenever they felt like. After a while my body gave in and I was bed ridden for two weeks and in this time, I was pleading to be returned home but my pleas fell on deaf ears. Eventually, I was returned in 2018 in a very bad condition – the right side of my body had been paralyzed and up to now I am still in pain. My nerves were damaged because of the workload, and I cannot afford the medication to repair my nerves. (Female migrant worker interviewed in Kampala on 16/06/2022)

Prior to the start of this research study, my colleagues and I had been involved in a couple of research projects on migrant labour, which were mainly desk reviews. We were thrilled about the prospect of conducting a field-based research study that explored gendered aspects of migration and return among women from Uganda.

International labour recruitment in particular is a growing phenomenon in Uganda; large numbers of Ugandan workers are moving to the Gulf countries, facilitated by employment brokers. The Government of Uganda has a strategic labour externalization programme, implemented by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, which is “intended to facilitate the recruitment of Ugandan migrant workers to decent employment opportunities and promote the protection of their rights and welfare in destination countries”[1].

The available statistics on labour migration from Uganda to the Gulf are only part of the story – every person we spoke to in the course of this study had their own novel story to tell. We are cognizant that our research study involved only 30 participants (returnee and aspirant migrants), but from their responses to our questions and their willingness to connect us to their network, it was clear that our research study was only the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

For this study, we also interviewed government agencies and representatives, civil society organizations, and representatives of recruitment agencies. During our interactions, we were briefed about government interventions regarding labour migration, the role of recruitment agencies and brokers, and the realities and experiences as narrated by returnee migrant workers.

The story at the start of this blog is sadly not an exception, but rather a regular experience for female migrant workers. Many have found themselves in similar appalling circumstances in the Gulf States. Notably, the first gendered aspects of migrant labour become clear at this level where it is women who are employed as domestic workers while the majority of men as casual labourers or security guards. Gender is central to any discussion of the drives and consequences of migration. It shapes the migration experience – the reasons for migrating, who migrates and to where, how people migrate and the networks they use, the opportunities and resources available at destinations, and relations with the country of origin.

The uniqueness of domestic work is that it is undertaken in more private settings where, even in the presence of legal frameworks, it is hard to ensure compliance. As such, a female worker is likely to have a different experience from, say, a male counterpart who works in a well-regulated space with well-defined working hours.

During our interaction with aspirant migrant workers, we observed that the common factor behind pursuing employment in the Gulf States was poverty. In addition, increasing unemployment rates have made many youths desperate for livelihood opportunities. Further, we observed that whereas migration presents new opportunities, it may also put their human rights and security at risk. Female migrants, owing to their work environment, are more susceptible to human rights violations such as torture, denial of healthcare, food and remuneration among others.

This research study was a light bulb moment for us. It was an emotionally charged experience hearing the heartrending stories of returnee migrants, but also learning that many more women were in preparation to leave to the Gulf to earn a living and provide for their families, regardless of the largely gloomy stories of former migrants.


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