By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda is planning to send about 1,000 medical workers to Libya, an official said on Friday, a plan criticised by health activists who believe it would further weaken the country's struggling health care system.
Over the last decade, foreign recruiters and employers from the Middle East have increasingly turned to the east African nation for cheap labour. Thousands are already there working as waitresses, domestic servants, store clerks and in other jobs.
Milton Turyasiima, commissioner of employment services in the labour ministry, said a hospital in Benghazi, Libya's second biggest city, had approached Uganda to supply health workers.
"We are now doing underground work. Our diplomatic people are trying to first establish the safety of the workers, the working conditions in Benghazi," he told Reuters.
"If they finish that work today or tomorrow, then we'll be ready to send these people," Turyasiima said, adding they would include a mix of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.
The workers will be moving to a country plagued by widespread insecurity since its former leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, with rival governments and armed alliances now competing for power.
Ugandan health activists have also criticised the plan since the country itself needed to increase workers to revitalise its failing healthcare system.
Years of underfunding, corruption and neglect have meant that the sector is largely dysfunctional, government critics say.
Most public hospitals - often dilapidated and short of vital medical equipment - are understaffed, while drugs are frequently out of stock.
"Health worker shortage kills Ugandans unnecessarily every day," said Asia Russell, executive director of the public health pressure group Health GAP.
"This outrageous plan will make an already dire situation worse, intensifying suffering and preventable death."
Russell said the government should instead lift its freeze on public sector recruitment so that additional healthy workers are absorbed and "deployed with tools to do their jobs where they are needed most."
(Editing by Aaron Maasho and Pritha Sarkar)