It was the 2022 World Cup that intensely put the Middle East on the spot over the conditions of migrant workers.
In the build-up to the World Cup, more than 6,500 workers were believed to have died in Qatar under circumstances directly related to working conditions. While western racism formed a core part of the chants for boycott, the terrible working conditions and deaths were an undeniable fact.
For over decade now, we have not had a month go by without horrifying stories of workers’ plight in the Middle East: beatings, enslavement, confiscation of travel documents, death, and deaths, and more recently, resales like in the old days of chattel slavery.
Three things normally happen when these horrifying stories hit our waves: (a) we demand that government evacuates the victims, dead or alive. Sometimes, we challenge government to negotiate directly with governments in the Middle East. Never have these calls been heeded.
(b) We blast labour exporters for being so selfish about their profits, and insensitive about working conditions, and (c) we castigate the Arabs for being racist and inhumane. While I agree with all these reflexes—yes, reflexes—my contention is that this is often simply scratching the surface.
Look, that Arabs are racist is entirely undeniable, and is not about to change – especially towards our often pale, malnourished and mildly educated labour exports. We are not exporting specialists. That labour exporters prioritise profits – and many of them are fake – is also undeniable, and might not change soon under the present conditions of fakeness in neoliberal Uganda. Finally, if this government cannot guarantee safety and good working conditions for Ugandans in Uganda, what weird expectations can one have for those working abroad.
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
On the one hand, it is important to note that the stories of pain and deaths do not define the entire spectrum of work and remuneration in the Middle East.
True, there is work in the Middle East — especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar — and the remuneration is fairly better than what is common in our foreign-dominated extractive outpost often humoured as “the Ugandan economy.”
Indeed, although figures don’t precisely indicate from which destination the money comes, but working abroad allegedly beat coffee sales in forex revenue in the past years. Middle Eastern labourers contribute a significant chunk. (That remittances beat coffee in annual revenue is a saddening development if true, and directly explain the Middle Eastern labour predicament).
But we need to ask: why are Ugandans leaving for work in the Middle East en masse – in menial tasks, as maids, janitors, untrained security guards, even those with university degrees and other apprenticed skills? Note that the emoluments aren’t outstanding either. It is normally between Shs 800,000 to Shs 1.2 million – which is $250 and $300. Why is our economy unable to create employment offering these fairly small salaries?
In an online discussion recently, a rescuer of labour victims from the Middle East noted that just a couple of months after being rescued, one finds the “ex-victim” processing documents to return to the Middle East. And their undeniable contention: “what is here for me?”
About two years ago, opposition leader, Bobi Wine met the same challenge when he intensified campaigns to return victims from the Middle East to Uganda. He could not answer the question: “To what are you returning them to in Uganda?”
One would not miss the irony at Entebbe Airport during the Bobi Wine rescues: Ten girls would be at the arrivals after being rescued, while another 500 is entering the airport departing to the same destination, aboard the same flight that just returned the rescued girls.
COUNTRY OF WALKING DEAD
I have argued elsewhere that a dead migrant worker dies many times, and has many killers. The first and major death happens at home. In Uganda, all of us are nothing but walking zombies. The conditions of abject poverty, deprivation, and hopelessness, dispossession—sadly, imposed upon us by the state — have forced many young men and women out of Uganda.
Again, no one, I repeat, no one wants to leave their homeland into some racist countries abroad, if it were not for the dire conditions in which they live. See, just one example – paraphrasing Prof. Ezra Suruma – with interest rates averaging at 34 per cent and with taxes imposed even on loans, many creative and innovative young Ugandan have had their businesses die in one year.
Even so-called tycoons and thriving businessperson are barely surviving. That is because 34 per cent is absolute theft. Ugandan banks keep many ordinary Ugandans in the informal sector away, and thus this so-called economy has nothing to offer except extraction. No wonder the ministry of Health would announce that 14 million Ugandans are mentally ill.
It is the economy. This deprivation and humiliation is the first moment of death. As the girls have often asked, “what is here for me?” Sadly, it is the least documented and least discussed. These walking zombies of migrant workers then die a second death on the road.
They are humiliated processing travel documents and related fees and protocols. I have seen adult men and women being chased and caned by recruiting agencies like one hunting down a snake. This humiliation traumatises and kills.
The final moment of death happens at the workstation: battered, denied food, racialised or resold. They die in the Middle East or are returned home to die.
My contention is this, all these different encounters of humiliation and death ought to be discussed exhaustively, and our focus as activists ought to be at the root causes, the first deaths.
That is because, we ought to agree that for many migrant workers — by far the majority — the Middle East has actually been their resurrection – having died in Uganda before departure.
The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University.