The abuse culture in Ugandan employment
If you lived in a desert, a place where finding a liter of water is the equivalent of finding a tonne of gold, you would probably look at water differently from someone that lives by the lake. Your tolerance for algae, pebbles or even mud in your water would be much higher than the one who knows all they have to do is walk three meters to find it. This is the same way the employment culture is in Uganda. I’m not talking about the one percent whose parents own firms and businesses so they are guaranteed employment no matter what. Neither am I talking about the other one percent who through relatives in influential positions are able to jump to the front of any application process. I’m also not referring to the law of the jungle where the strong survive and the weak are destroyed. I’m talking about the remaining majority, the ordinary Ugandan who, after struggling through an average of sixteen years of school, an unpaid internship, one or two voluntary positions, and most probably a few more months of sitting at home unemployed, has finally landed an entry job in a small company somewhere.
You would like to think they have made it. They have beaten the odds, and they have. However, the end of the journey of the anxiety of applying for numerous jobs, is the beginning of another journey of putting up with almost daily psychological, emotional and sometimes physical or sexual abuse. Even though we have an Employment act, we are still very far behind adequate representation of employees in Uganda. And because jobs are like water in a desert, you put up with all the algae, mud and pebbles generously poured into your water because not only will someone else take the dirty water if you don’t, you also have no idea where the next cup of water will come from if you let this one go.
You put up with your boss’ wife as she loudly threatens to fire you in front of all your colleagues because she thinks you are trying to steal her husband. Somehow the fact that she is having a bad morning should be explanation enough for you.
You put up with salaries paid two or more weeks late every month even though the directors have all taken vacations with their wives and children to exotic destinations that month. Even if you worked for that money, you should be grateful that you’re even paid at all.
You put up with a colleague continually harassing you over a report you made that they want to copy, and even though you’re not comfortable with him xeroxing the work you spent days working on, you cannot say no because he is a brother to your C.E.O.
You put up with baby-sitting your supervisor’s children because it’s a rite of passage for any one in your position looking to climb the corporate ladder. Besides, that’s the only way you get invited to the exclusive parties at their house. Every one that came before you knows that!
You put up with having no health insurance or mandatory retirement fund because at least you have a job, despite the fact that half of the field assignments you are sent to involve you risking your life each time because you are coming from Kampala to Entebbe using a ‘boda-boda”.
You put up with everyone turning to look at you during Administration meetings because the chairperson would like some tea and you are the only woman in the room.
You put up with watching all your opportunities to attend workshops or trainings given to the junior associate that plays golf with the boss.
But mostly, you put up with the daily psychological harassment of being constantly reminded that your employers are doing you a favor by having employed you and if you feel like you cannot handle the “way things are”, you’re free to leave at any time.
You have no power. You have no peace. You have no security. You have nothing to protect you or your rights as an employee. You’re stressed out, anxious and over-worked. If you dare bring this up with others, you're told that you're a 'millennial' and this is nothing but entitlement; that your parents and ancestors were able to do more with less in worse conditions. So you sip on that mud-colored, algae-ridden, pebble-filled water every day anyway until either you’re lucky enough to find a better oasis or the water poisons you and kills you.
Now I know that it’s more complex than I make it sound, and there is a corporate network of strings that would take eternity to untangle. I am aware that not all organisations are that way (mine inclusive- currently super happy at work!). But I didn’t always work here. I’ve had my fair share of that abuse. I know a lot of people that are dealing with issues like this and bigger every day at their places of work, and there is literally NOTHING they can do about it. Just because it's the way it's been done for centuries, does not make it right.
I wish I had a number you can call, or a Union to link these victims up with. I wish I could tell you that you can easily sue and get compensated for all your trouble, but I would be lying. What I can tell you is the culture of abuse by a majority of Ugandan employers is real and it’s affecting many more lives than you can imagine. If you're in a position to do better as a colleague, employer, or business owner, now is the time to act.