Staff crisis: new contract rule causes Filipino maid shortage in the UAE

After spending Dh30,000 in the past months to hire a Filipino maid, a British family is still without one. It is a problem facing many households in the UAE, as Manila’s disapproval of a new standard contract has led to a shortage and higher wage demands, Mitya Underwood reports.
Housemaids and their wards at a park in Dubai. The new standard contract says recruitment agencies should not require potential employers to deal with embassies. Jaime Puebla / The National
Housemaids and their wards at a park in Dubai. The new standard contract says recruitment agencies should not require potential employers to deal with embassies. Jaime Puebla / The National

After trawling through posts on social media and asking friends for recommendations, the British expatriate thought he had found what he was looking for – an English-speaking Filipino housemaid.

He and his wife, who have two young children, were offering what they thought was a fair salary and pleasant working conditions.

But after working for a week, the maid announced that she had a new job with another family, and quit. Four months later and thousand of dirhams out of pocket, the family is still without a domestic helper.

“Over the past few months we have employed five different would-be live-in nannies,” said the father. “We have offered to sponsor three of them directly and we’ve spent approximately Dh30,000, and we still have no nanny.

“This is a simple issue of supply and demand. There are so many families looking for domestic help at this time of the year and so few available maids. The people already working here are the only ones. They have to leave somebody to join somebody, so someone is always going to be left out.”

The family’s situation is far from unusual; social media and internet discussion forums are awash with similar tales of woe.

The problem can be traced to the beginning of June, when the Ministry of Interior introduced a new standard contract for domestic staff.

The previous contract required employers to allow household staff to freely communicate with their families in their home countries and with their embassy, and banned employers from forcing staff to extend their contracts without the verification and approval of their embassy.

The new contract omits those conditions. It also says recruitment agencies should not require potential employers to deal with embassies when signing contracts for domestic staff.

Before the new contract was introduced, employers were required to ratify staff contracts at the Philippine embassy, enabling it to keep a record of Philippine nationals working in the UAE and ensure that their basic employment rights were being met.

Once the contract was ratified, the Philippines overseas labour office would issue a letter of verification, permitting domestic staff to travel to the UAE.

Now, however, the Philippines refuses to approve the new standard contract, so there are no letters of verification. That means domestic staff hoping to work in the UAE cannot legally leave the Philippines.

The result has been a drastic drop in the number of available housemaids and a market shift in favour of the employee.

About 50,000 Filipinos are thought to be working as nannies and domestic staff in Dubai and the Northern Emirates alone, and without new recruits their bargaining power has increased.

Juliet Lasalita, who runs a recruitment agency in Al Ain, used to bring up to 70 housemaids a month from the Philippines through her agency. “I haven’t had any in four months,” she says.

“The Filipinos are not banned. The problem is that they can’t leave our country without the proper document, and that’s the contract verification because that’s the only document they can show at the airport to say they have their own sponsor over here.”

Many families say there are now so few Filipino housemaids or nannies that those still here are demanding much higher salaries than the legal minimum of Dh1,500 a month.

On social media and Facebook sites there are whole conversations dedicated to the “ban”, with complaints from employers about housemaids asking for what are described as unrealistic wages and benefits, along with posts from domestic staff hoping to find new employment.

One woman, posting on a Facebook site on behalf of her friend, warns potential staff: “As long as you are not unreasonable with the amount you are asking for, she is willing to give a good salary and ALL of the benefits that you are entitled to under the law. Please do not contact her however if you are intent on exploiting her because she is American. She will pay a good salary but will not pay above the normal expected (don’t tell her you want 3,000AED a month, 2 days off etc).”

The British expatriate father has also been asked to pay much higher salaries. One woman was asking for Dh4,500, two days off a week and regular hours from 9am until 5pm.

He and his wife also paid an agency to hire someone from the Philippines because they could not find someone locally who was finishing an existing contract.

“She was literally one of the last ones in. We paid about Dh7,000 to that agency and all the visa fees on top of that. It was about Dh11,000. It didn’t work out either,” he says.

“It’s always a good thing that workers’ rights are balancing out, but at the moment the system is not working.”

While many accept that housemaids have long deserved a better deal, others are aggrieved that they are being forced to pay higher salaries. One writer blamed some wealthy employers for distorting the market by hiring staff they did not need and paying excessive salaries, thus creating a group of nannies and maids who were “more like predators … just looking for their next victim. I hope these people will understand and realise how unstable and dangerously out of control this thing is going”.

On the same Facebook site, another woman admits to breaking the law. “The nanny I have, who joined me in March, has below the minimum [wage], doesn’t get a day off but has an easy day and often sleeps before me.” Justifying the low wages, she explains: “She is provided with a mobile [phone] which was not part of the contract, has 24hr Wi-Fi; can eat the same food as us or eat Filipino food which I have purchased for her. I treat her like one of the family.”

That may not be enough in the current market, where maids in lower paid positions are looking for a higher salary and better working conditions with another employer.

One maid, in her fifties, is looking to leave her British employers after three years because she wants a higher salary. She has been a housemaid in the Arabian Gulf for 15 years and earns Dh2,200, but has to buy her own food and toiletries.

“I want a little bit more, for the food only,” she says, but would not say how much she was looking for. “It depends on the situation. I have enough experience. I want them to treat me fairly, as a member of the family. I like the family I am with, but am looking around. There are many families wanting a nanny, I think I will find one very easy.”

She denies that housemaids discriminate against Arab families, but she wants to work for a western family.

“I know ladies working with an Emirati family and they tell me the salary is only Dh1,200 or Dh1,000. I don’t know why,” she says.

Ms Lasalita agrees that the nationality of a potential employer can be an issue. Most housemaids, she says, “want to work with the expats because they give them more salary”.

One Emirati mother, from Abu Dhabi, admits that the salaries she and her friends pay are sometimes lower but blames the recruitment process.

“Most expats get their maids privately, so that’s why they pay more,” she says.

“Most Emiratis will go to the agencies and pay Dh20,000, so that’s why we can’t pay Dh2,000 a month, we spent a lot in the first place. We looked for someone here already but we couldn’t find anyone.”

A mother of four children, all under eight years of age, she has had bad experiences with maids and now chooses to look after her children herself.

One maid, she says, had a series of relationships with men and the family did not want her bringing her personal life into their home.

“I don’t care as long as you keep it to yourself,” she says.

“But after six or seven months she started not doing any work and going to her room every 20 minutes. She just left the kids in the pool. That made me really upset.

“We checked her phone. I didn’t want men coming into my house; you hear all these stories. Then we stopped letting her out, we offered her the chance to leave, but she was crying and saying she wants the job. Nobody was abusive to her, nobody beat her or starved her.”

When the contract expired the family terminated her employment and decided to live without a housemaid.

“I didn’t realise how much my nanny did for my kids that they should be doing on their own. Now it is much better. Families can depend too much on nannies and maids. I think a lot of young Emirati mums are becoming less dependent on nannies.”

She says the reputation Emirati families have of being tougher employers is unwarranted and mainly the result of maids exaggerating tales about their treatment.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t honour the contract.”

The stand-off between the UAE and the Philippines does not look as if it will be resolved quickly. Until it is, the shortage of maids will probably continue – and wage demands will keep rising.

Published: September 29, 2014 04:00 AM


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