At least an average of 12,000 Ugandans leave for the Middle East annually in search of employment, according to government data.
Data sourced from the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, under which labour externalisation is supervised, indicates that the number of Ugandans seeking employment in the Middle East has been growing since 2010, becoming one of the biggest stock of labour opportunities and source of remittance.
For instance, according to a Ministry of Gender report, which highlights externalisation of labour between 2010 and April 2021, migrant workers, whose number stood at 9,967 in 2010 with majority of them going to Iraq, Afghanistan and United Arab Emirates, have grown three-fold, increasing to 28,233 by the end of April 2021.
The huge growth in 2021, which was captured just four months within the year, according to official data, was due to returnee migrant workers, who had sought to return to either complete their contracts that had been disrupted by the outbreak of Covid-19, or seek new employment opportunities.
However, there has since been a shift in the destination with majority now going to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Somalia also takes a substantial number, which in the last 12 years has grossed 3,445 migrant workers.
According to government data, at least 98 per cent of migrant workers to the Middle East, which currently stands at 140,402, are employed as casual labourers with only 0.2 per cent holding professional jobs, while 1.8 per cent work in semi-professional placements.
Migrant labour export, especially to the Middle East, has played a key role in the growth of Uganda’s remittances, earning the country more than $500m in 2019.
According to Bank of Uganda, in 2019, remittances earned Uganda $1.21b, boosted by receipts from labour exports to Middle East.
Dr Adam Mugume, the Bank of Uganda executive director research, recently said that while receipts from traditional source markets such as Europe and the Americas, had dropped, remittances from the Middle East were rising, noting that out of the $1.21b, more than half had come from the Middle East.
The Middle East has become an important aspect in Uganda’s growth, providing a market for labour, commodity exports and trade.
Currently, according to government data, at least 44 per cent of Uganda’s exports go to the Middle East with United Arab Emirates providing the largest market.
Almost 95 per cent of the commodities exported to the region is gold, which is now Uganda’s largest export.
Externalisation of labour is currently an important phenomena, especially in Asia, Middle East and Africa.
President Museveni recently, while speaking during celebrations to mark International Labour Day, surprised Ugandans when he castigated labour exporters, saying he does not believe in labour export, urging Ugandans to concentrate on industrialisation, ICT, services and agriculture to create mass employment.
However, a number of Ugandans have faulted the President, accusing him of ignoring “systematic failures” by his government that continue to render young Ugandans jobless.
Mr Douglas Opio, the Federation of Uganda Employers, at the weekend told Daily Monitor, that whereas it was important that skilled labour is employed locally, it was currently difficult to absorb them, noting focus should be put on ensuring that labour migration is made safe, orderly and regular.
“The ideal situation would be for skilled labour force to be employed locally. However, since this is not possible at the moment, we should ensure that people are not trafficked or end up in forced labour,” he said.
Government data does not include Ugandans, many of whom are trafficked through Kenya and other porous border points.
While the exact figure of Ugandans working out the country is difficult to establish due to lack of data and illegal exits, United Nations estimates that more than 620,000 Ugandans live outside the country and are employed within East Africa, Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas and Middle East, among others.