HUMAN TRAFFICKING | SLAVERY
Undercover journalist sold into slavery in Dubai - Part 1
Undercover as a slave Part 2: Journalist in the dark of Dubai
Undercover journalist sold as a slave in Dubai - Part 3
A Sunday Vision journalist got in touch with traffickers who smuggled her to Dubai on promises of a high paying job. She ended up in an agent's holding cell, from where she was taken to a slave market.
I thank God that I was able to do this story and return to Uganda alive. Once I got clearance from New Vision, I volunteered to be trafficked into Dubai, penetrating the security of Entebbe Airport with irregularly acquired visa, only to end up in an agent's prison cell.
Her name was Sara. She made it clear that to regain our freedom, we had to be sold off to employers or refund the money she used to ‘buy' us — the money she paid for our visas and tickets. She sells a few online, the rest of us have to wait for the slave market.
Taken for sale
By the time I am taken to the slave market, I am told everything that happens there. Yet when the day comes, on January 28, it is still shocking to me. It is degrading, inhuman and cruel. I will never forget that day. It is a day I lost faith in humanity. For the sake of money, there is nothing that a human being cannot do to a fellow human being.
Sara again briefs us on how we are to behave at the market, which she calls office. She says Arabs prefer maids with experience. So, those who can, should claim they have been housemaids before.
She explains that those who have less than two years of working experience in Dubai, will be earning 8,000 dirhams (about sh800,000) and those with experience, 1,000 dirhams (about sh1m). She also says we should say we have children even if we did not have because Arabs want mothers because they imagine they respect and want to protect children.
The office is a big market place for housemaids. It is made up of two markets, separated by an artificial green carpet with games for children of families who come to buy workers. One market is labelled Al Wadad Labour Recruitment and the other, Qortaj Labour Recruitment. The markets are close to each other in the municipality of Ajman, opposite Ajman Post Office after Sharjah on the way from the airport.
Each of us is dressed in long dresses because Sara says our bums must be hidden. She says Arabs are insecure about employing a maid with a big butt and are protective of their husbands.
We covered our heads the Islamic way and carried our luggage in case we are bought. We leave them in a small store and sit on a raised platform behind glasses. In front, is a counter where our agent Sara, sits waiting for buyers. But, we were told, she has brokers outside the building who keep calling out to potential buyers and bringing them to our stall, the way salons are aggressively marketed at Gazaland in Kampala.
Sara has many more maids than the ones at her home. The different groups meet at the market. She separates us into three groups according to our origins; Africans, Filipinos and Indians. Many clients come with specific nationalities they want, only a few do not mind.
Al Wadad, Qortaj human markets
The markets cover about six acres. There were more than 15 agents at Al Wadad, but Al Qortaj had about 20. Each has a horde of humans on sale, but I only see Africans and Asians on sale. Africans are from Uganda, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia. Asians are from Sri Lanka, India, Philippines, and Indonesia.
Whenever a client stopped at our stall, we all have to stand and smile. If he picks interest in you, you step out, turn around, as he touches you wherever he wants. If he likes you, a mini-interview is carried out immediately.
The common questions are whether you have worked in any country as a maid before; your age; if you have your own children; when you arrived in Dubai and if you have any sickness or allergies. Our agent tells us to say we were either married or divorced because Arabs do not want to use housemaids who are single.
If they agree to take you, they pay Sara. You pick your belongings and follow the buyer.
I, however, noticed that the client never signed anywhere that they have taken you. If they do not pass the interview, you return to the shelves, with a hostile stare from the agent as if it was your fault. Some girls tell us that they have been here for several weeks without being bought.
Some of the clients make fun of us. Most of them come as family and start discussing about us in our presence. Even when it was in Arabic, you can tell who is praising or insulting you. If they want a baby-sitter, they come with their babies and toddlers to test if a baby will like you. They make you carry the baby and if it cries, you have failed the interview.
Three things unnerve me that day. One is the ridicule of humanity. The girls on sale are commodities, who have no say in the transaction. I cry when, at the next stall, some old women on sale from Sri Lanka, who must have been in their 50s, are always made to go through the rituals of standing, smiling and turning around only to be dismissed by every client often before completinging their 360 degrees of rotation. Other clients call each other to collectively laugh at them. I felt like killing somebody.
The second thing is the brutality of some agents. Sara is civil compared to others who are rough, keep shouting at their girls on sale and even slap them. At the stall next door, an agent slaps an Indian woman on sale for failing to smile properly for a buyer. She threatens to throw her out into the street.
Thirdly, and most lethal, is the discovery that agents do not care whether the girls are sold for housemaid work or for sex exploitation. All they want is money.
The buying process
Time goes and I am not being bought. I start loathing going back to Sara's prison in fear of being abused. And Sara is also losing her temper as people stare and leave. She scolds me for not trying to present myself well enough for buyers. She says it is my duty to market myself to get jobs. Before she is done, a client enters and I must smile as if I am enjoying it.
The office is also where those who bought maids before and did not like them, return them to seller for a replacement. And the Arabs return girls for flimsy reasons because they know housemaids are many; they will either get a replacement or move to another agent.
We try as much as possible to talk to the girls who are being returned, but Sara blocks access. She does not want us to know why she was returned. But it is traumatising; imagine being bought by someone who has just returned your colleague, who arrived crying. You are told to go and replace her when you know nothing about why she failed to work at that house.
The Arab name for housemaid is kadama. The reasons buyers return girls are not provable: They claim kadama was lazy, dirty, stinking, hostile, did not smile for my children, wears makeup, among other reasons.
Filipinos are the most expensive and most sought after because they are said to love children. I am told Arabs also like Ugandans because they are hard-working and speak good English. But they also say Ugandans love to rest, which is not acceptable with Arabs.
I notice that the decision to buy is usually taken by women. In fact, to stay longer in a home, you must impress the woman even if the man is not impressed.
Some of the buyers are Whites, Indians and, yes, I saw a black couple or two.
We all gasp when a tough-looking woman comes along with her man to our stall. She points at me and I step forward, praying to God not to be chosen. She makes me rotate three times and complains that my bums are too big. Nevertheless, she gestures that I go for an interview.
I am so nervous that she tells me to calm down. During the interview, I realise that I might be impressing the woman instead. I do not think she would make a good boss. So, when she asks me if I know how to look after a baby, I say no! I can feel Sara, who was behind me, almost burst with anger. She repeats the question and I tell her I do not like children at all.
That is how I am returned to my shelf and eventually back to our prison home, with Sara breathing fire about how I was just consuming her food without being bought. I try to explain that the woman looked cruel, but Sara cannot hear any of it. If I wanted a mother, she says, I should have remained home in Uganda!
I am bought on the second day, early in the morning. It is at about 8:30pm when two women come in. I notice that one of the women is the one who returned one of Sara's maid the previous day. The girl was bought again that evening.
The women talk to Sara and she calls all of us to step forward. We are five. We smiled as usual and turned around. The women looked jolly with smiles as they looked at one after another. They do not ask any questions. They want to take all of us at ago.
Sara had already briefed us that once we are chosen, we should negotiate to have phones and Wi-Fi while at work. So, I ask if we shall have access to phones, the older woman refused, saying phones will interrupt my work. I say I will only be chatting in the night. The younger woman talks to her in Arabic and so does Sara. I think they convince her; so we are told to pick our luggage. Sara also returns our passports.
Finally, my first job! My final exit from the prison. And my passport. I could even leave the next day. I had enough for a full story!
Sara calls us aside and entreats us to work hard. She advises us to always smile even if they abuse us and to always make sure we do all the work we are given. The smile she puts while selling us can make one think that she has never quarrelled.
We initially think we are going to the same home, but once out of Sara's hands, we are distributed to what looks like different families who are relatives or friends.
I leave with my new bosses, a man and his wife. We exit office at about 9:00pm and drive for about 40 minutes to the destination.
I am so scared and fail to trace where I am being taken. I had survived the prison and the market, but my heart is not at peace! What could be the problem? Am I being taken for slaughter, sex work or cruel bosses? I decide to place everything in God's hands.
Starting next week on Sundays, the writer will be narrating her experiences on kyeyo till she was smuggled out of Dubai.
Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development
I have no idea of what migrant workers, especially domestic workers are going through in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). We signed a bilateral agreement with UAE, but I do not know why it has not been implemented.
However, It is news to me that there is a market in Dubai that displays housemaids for sale. What I know is that Uganda labour companies are subcontracted by UAE companies, but they do not put girls on stalls. If they do so, then that is slave trade. And we should deal with it immediately.
I advise girls to always mind their personal security and use formal ways of applying for a job in the UAE (through registered labour export companies). I know that housemaids are the most vulnerable people. I, therefore urge stakeholders to look at the plight of the workers in UAE.
I cannot say there is no transitional trafficking taking place at the airport, but the gender ministry is not responsible for it. That is the work of the immigration anti-human trafficking office attached to the internal affairs ministry.
I caution girl rushing for domestic work in the UAE to always be careful because that is an area where girls are allegedly suffering the most. Partly, this is caused by lack of monitoring by the labour export companies.
Even when things go bad and they decide to run to the embassy, there is no budget the embassies have to take care of them.
When one is taken by a company, we have at least where to start from in terms of solving the problem. The ministry is not mandated to repatriate, but you have seen situations where some companies have lost their license to operate due to such carelessness. When something like that happens, we then involve the foreign affairs ministry.
This story was done with the support of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF)