Two women wearing hijabs sit by a river.

The pursuit of a livelihood: women migrant workers and gendered experiences of migration from Uganda to the gulf countries

Zahara Nampewo, Hadijah Namyalo-Ganafa, Edgar Emmanuel Mugarura, Lavender M. Mboya

In the past ten years, there has been a surge in the number of Ugandan labour migrants (both high and low skilled) to the Gulf region, constituting an important part of the economic development of these countries. Though initially sought for specific industries (i.e. construction and service industries), Ugandan migrants are increasingly contributing to other high skilled and professional sectors in destination countries. Much of the lower skilled opportunities, however, remain largely gendered where female workers are employed in domestic services (i.e. caregiving, cleaners, cooks) whereas male workers are engaged in the construction, security and transportation services. Reports of discrimination in wages, poor working conditions, lack of access to social protection, and abusive practices have not deterred labour migration to the Gulf and Middle East countries. This report examines gendered labour migration in Uganda, the process of decision making leading to internal and/or international migration, and the impact thereof. It develops a body of knowledge from migrants’ viewpoint that was previously absent. It further analyses gender-specific experiences of return and reintegration into communities and families, in addition to capturing women’s unique accounts of their migration processes.

The objectives of the study are:

  1. To examine how gender influences decisions related to migration and return
  2. To understand how migration affects gender relations within household between those who move and those who remain behind
  3. To assess the extent to which gendered differences in migration trajectories and experiences are reflected in policy (government, donor, and multilateral) related to migration

Research for this study was carried out in Kampala, Uganda, a key transit point for internal and international migrants to Gulf Countries and host to numerous companies involved in the recruitment process. The study comprised of a desk review and field research conducted between May-July 2022 to collect qualitative data through 22 semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with 19 key informants that included aspiring and returnee migrants to the Gulf countries, Ugandan immigration personnel, government and private sector actors and labour recruitment agencies.

Key Findings

  1. Since 2016, more than 223,102 domestic and professional migrant workers have left Uganda to work in the Middle East due to high unemployment/underemployment that particularly affects the 21-36 age cohort. The primary destination for female workers is Saudi Arabia due to a bilateral labour agreement between the two countries that includes a provision of free costs of travel for the migrants.
  2. Rising unemployment levels is necessitating changes in gender relations with increased demand for women to supplement family incomes and improve family living standards. The absence of standardized/national minimum wage policy in the formal and informal sector has contributed to stagnation or decline in wages and demand for Gulf employment emigration.
  3. The acceptance of domestic work as an important livelihood category and rising demand for domestic labour in Gulf countries continues to attract Ugandan women into the labour force and international migration. As a result, the Ugandan government developed a strategic labour externalization programme in 2005 intended to facilitate the recruitment of local migrant workers towards better employment opportunities and to promote the protection of their rights and welfare in destination countries. The 2021 regulation seeks to strengthen gaps in the earlier iteration by increasing obligations on recruitment agencies
  4. Level of education is not considered a key factor influencing migration decisions. Both men and women, regardless of their education levels, have sought low-skilled employment in the Gulf countries.
  5. Some women pursue work abroad as means of escaping problematic domestic relations and gender-based violence. However, the isolated nature of being a domestic worker may expose them to further abuse – physical, emotional, mental or sexual – often with limited recourse or support systems.
  6. In many cases, female migrants were subjected to hormone suppressant drugs, contraceptive medication and sexual suppressants (anaphrodisiac) prior to departure without their consent.
  7. Migration experiences are greatly influenced by the recruitment modality: licensed or unlicensed recruitment agency. Workers recruited via unlicensed agents often face unpredictable journeys and processes that render them vulnerable to fraudulent employment schemes. Unlicensed recruitment agents often prey on low skilled populations in rural areas. Low-income families often pay exorbitant recruitment fees to these unofficial brokers to ensure their daughters secure employment in order to escape poverty.

Key Recommendations

  1. The Government of Uganda should, with support from organisations working to support workers’ rights, reassess existing labour migration frameworks and incorporate gender-specific regulations and procedures for migrants and aspirants, including protections from employer exploitation and sexual harassment as well as ensuring equitable pay between men and women for comparable work.
  2. Multi sectoral teams comprised of government, civil society and non-governmental organizations should be established to oversee the employment migration programs, including conducting pre-departure orientations for migrants with emphasis on gender specific roles as well as avenues for redress in cases of abuse. Pre-departure information must include information and consent forms with respect to drugs being administered to migrant women as well as information on GBV, sexual harassment and accessing the justice system in case of abuse.
  3. Governments should, with support from organisations working to support migrants’ rights, develop or strengthen mechanisms for reporting abuses against migrants in both Uganda and destination countries, such as establishment of fully staffed call centres and telephone hotlines. Consulate staff at destination countries must register nationals, obtain employment information and link migrants with embassy personnel that conduct periodic safety checks with full documentation.
  4. The Government of Uganda should assign gender, health and labour attachés at Uganda’s Gulf embassies to assist migrants in their new workplaces. Shelters and support centres should also be set up within these establishments to aid victims of rights abuses.
  5. Government and nongovernmental organisations should work to strengthen the operationalisation of the Domestic Violence Act and other policies and legislation on GBV as a way of systematically targeting discriminatory social institutions which impinge on women’s rights and push them to migrate for safety.
  6. An emergency fund should be established to offer legal aid, medical assistance and emergency repatriation for migrant workers in need of assistance, e.g., high level sensitization providing support to ministries of foreign affairs on the mechanisms required to address injured/missing/dead migrants; technical assistance in terms of management of injured persons i.e., health medical treatment/ forensic medical investigation.
  7. Four-party contracts should be instituted between the employee, the employer, the recruitment company in Uganda and the agency in the receiving country to ensure joint liability for any breach in a worker’s contract. Contracts for women should include specific clauses protecting them against GBV.
  8. Ugandan embassies in migrant-hosting countries should introduce a special unit that oversees police and forensic death investigations that has procedural knowledge of managing:
    • injured migrant workers who may have been subjected to physical assault, ill treatment including torture, sexual violence among others
    • deceased migrant workers
  1. Bilateral labour agreements should be concluded in more Gulf Countries that commonly receive migrant workers from Uganda; these should integrate a clause that requires these countries to ratify ILO’s 2011 Domestic Workers’ Convention, subsection 189 which guarantees domestic workers the same basic labour rights as other workers and provides protection from violenc

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