Since the UAE visa amnesty began earlier this month, stories have emerged about a sub-section of society that is often silent. Some wish to return home without being fined but most are hoping to formalise their status and return to legal employment. The hundreds flocking to the nine amnesty centres include construction workers, receptionists, secretaries, restaurant staff, engineers and salespeople but the majority are domestic workers, some of whom who say they fled their jobs because of ill-treatment. While most families welcome domestic workers, some can end up in extremely difficult situations, leading to their escape without documentation or income.
It would, of course, be naive to assume that all breakdowns in the relationships between domestic staff and employers are the fault of the latter. Regardless, it is disquieting to learn that some have found their circumstances so untenable that they would rather surrender themselves to the mercies of the black economy.
But while the amnesty has thrown a spotlight on such tales, it should be remembered that the vast majority of migrant workers who come here in search of a better life find it and prosper. Communities in countries including the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka benefit enormously from the money their compatriots send home, amounting to a total of Dh164.3 billion last year.
Economic migration is a reality of our globalised age and the UAE is neither alone in offering opportunities to overseas workers nor in experiencing problems. The United Nations estimates that around the world, 185 million people are working away from their home countries, of whom some eight million are believed to have been tricked or coerced into work. There is no getting away from the fact that some employers do take advantage of their staff. In the words of one domestic worker who emerged from the shadows this week: "If you respect me as a human being, I will respect you as a boss". Many of the issues faced by migrant workers in the UAE and elsewhere originate in their own countries, where unscrupulous recruitment agents tempt them with false promises. It is difficult to legislate for human nature but last year the Federal National Council took an important step, passing a draft bill framing the rights of domestic staff with provision for large fines and even jail sentences for employment agencies and employers.
This isn’t the first visa amnesty offered by the UAE – 340,000 illegal residents came forward in 2007 and 62,000 in 2013 – and it remains to be seen how many will have taken advantage of the current offer by the time it expires on October 31. The opportunity to rectify residency status and turn a new leaf is an important one and should be seized.