Move to end work contract scam for domestic workers

Immigration authorities plan to look into the issue of troubled domestic workers from the Philippines in an attempt to plug loopholes in a recruitment system that allows them to be exploited.

Abu Dhabi - November 18, 2009: Grace Princesa, who will  assume the post of Philippine ambassador to the UAE, replacing Libran Cabactulan after a six-year tenure.  Lauren Lancaster / The National *** Local Caption ***  18.11.09 - Philippine ambassador202.jpg

ABU DHABI // Immigration authorities plan to look into the issue of troubled domestic workers from the Philippines in an attempt to plug loopholes in a recruitment system that allows them to be exploited, the Philippine ambassador to the UAE said yesterday.

Any in-depth solution to the problem of contract substitution would have to involve direct co-operation between governments, getting rid of the middlemen and recruitment agencies, Grace Princesa said. "This would indeed be a step in the right direction in terms of migration and development," she said. Contract substitution happens when a second, inferior, labour contract to the signed original is presented to a worker, either before leaving their home country or after arriving in the UAE.

Fearing their job will evaporate if they point out the discrepancy, and in some cases unable to read the document, the workers sign it. The second document is considered legal, and is submitted to the Ministry of Labour. The ambassador announced plans to seek a meeting with UAE authorities to address the issue in August. That meeting happened on September 19 between Ms Princesa, other Filipino labour and embassy officials and Major Gen Nasser al Minhali, the acting assistant undersecretary for the Abu Dhabi Department of Naturalisation, Residency and Ports Affairs.

During the meeting, immigration officials promised to help speed up the process of sending home more than 100 housemaids who are seeking refuge inside the Filipino Workers Research Centre, a makeshift shelter at the new Philippine Embassy and overseas labour office in the Al Bateen district. "The officials said they would try to speak to the maids' sponsors to resolve the issue," Ms Princesa said.

The women fled their employers' homes after complaining of long working hours, lack of sleep, unpaid salaries and mistreatment. The majority of the women are waiting for their visas to be cancelled and for the retrieval of passports being kept by their employers. Ms Princesa told the immigration officials that of particular concern to the Philippine government is the issue of contract substitution, a situation that affects the majority of household workers in the Emirates.

There are 25,000 household workers living and working in the country, a fraction of the between 500,000 and 600,000 who live and work in the UAE, according to the Commission on Filipinos Overseas in Manila. However, "90 per cent of the problems are associated with our household workers and it takes up most of our time", Ms Princesa said. The majority of the household workers in the UAE earn $200 (Dh735) per month, half the $400 minimum wage set by the Philippine government, she said. "We do not have the data on contract substitution, but it seems to be a prevalent practice," she said.

Nasser Munder, the Filipino labour attaché in Abu Dhabi who was also at the meeting, said the UAE authorities are "aware of the problem. At the moment, the federal immigration authorities do not wish to interfere because they said the parties involved - the worker and the sponsor - were the ones who decide and agree on the monthly wage". But the federal immigration authorities are committed to providing a long-term solution to the situation through some sort of government-to-government set-up, he said.

"A worker shouldn't leave the Philippines without a contract that indicates his or her salary," he said. "In the case of household workers, they should hand over their contracts to their sponsors which in turn are filed with the immigration department." Mr Munder reminded Filipinos that they could not be forced to sign a new contract and to consult the Philippine overseas labour office if someone was attempting to do so.

"While contract substitution appears to be the norm for household workers, sadly, [only] a few of them complain because they are aware from the very start that they would receive less than $400," he said.