ABU DHABI // They come from all over Asia and pin their hopes for a better life on not just a promise, but a contract. Yet before they start their new jobs as maids, labourers, taxi drivers or in a variety of other service sectors, large number of unskilled overseas workers are given another document. Fearing the job will evaporate if they complain, they sign it, and then work under its inferior conditions.
Half of the calls to the Middle East branch of the international Filipino rights group Migrante - an average of five complaints per day - were about contract substitution, said John Leonard Monterona, regional co-ordinator. "They either got a reduced salary or other benefits such as medical insurance and housing were removed from their contracts," he said. Most often, the workers signed the new contracts under threat of retaliatory termination, said Nasser Munder, the labour attache in Abu Dhabi.
So although official complaints can be filed with the Ministry of Labour and action taken on their behalf, workers rarely want to follow that route. "We only know about contract substitution cases when they complain," said Dipak Adhikari, the deputy chief of mission at the Nepalese embassy in Abu Dhabi. "But they don't want to submit a written complaint." KB Murali, the president of the Kerala Social Centre in Abu Dhabi, said contract substitution was common among low-skilled Indian workers who already owed recruiters for getting them the job.
"The recruitment agencies charge exorbitant fees so the workers have no option but work in the country to pay back their loans in India," he said. Mohammed Moniruzzaman, the consul for labour affairs at the Bangladeshi embassy, said the problem could stem from recruitment agencies colluding with company representatives, or middlemen in the UAE. "They offer a high salary to the workers to entice them to come here," he said. "But the workers find it difficult to raise an issue about their contracts when they arrive."
Although local embassies do not keep statistics on the issue, several have provided estimates of the extent of the problem in the UAE. Mr Moniruzzaman estimated that for every 100 labour contracts issued to Bangladeshis, 60 to 70 had been substituted. Last year, the Philippine overseas labour office in Abu Dhabi received 25 complaints of contract substitution every day. Some workers left home without even reading their contracts, others were aware the terms and conditions would change once they arrived in the UAE. In June and July, the Nepalese embassy received 36 complaints in individual cases and one from a group of a dozen workers.
Contract substitution is such an issue for 70 per cent of 77,000 Indonesians working in the UAE as housemaids, that Sutomo, the labour attache at the Indonesian embassy, said: "Recruitment agencies warn them before they depart that the contract they had signed in Jakarta will not prevail." Although officials in Indonesia are involved in preparing the original contracts, "the contract prepared and signed in the UAE is the one being honoured".
Companies bringing workers into the UAE are required to submit their individual contracts to the Ministry of Labour, which keeps a record of them. The ministry did not respond to requests for an interview. However, various embassies and home offices have been working behind the scenes with UAE labour officials to address the situation. The Indian embassy in Abu Dhabi plans to introduce an online database, in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and the Protector of Emigrants in India, on which attested, original contracts can be stored and referred to in case of dispute.
"This will not only prevent duping of the workers with false promises, but will also help us to develop a database on the performance of the companies recruiting workers from India," said MK Lokesh, the Indian ambassador to the UAE, in a recent statement. The Bangladeshi government has been in discussions about adopting a unified contract for Bangladeshi workers, while the Philippine ambassador to the UAE, Grace Princesa, recently announced that she would seek a meeting with UAE authorities on the issue, although that has yet to be arranged.
In April 2007, the governments of the UAE and the Philippines signed a memorandum of understanding for temporary contractual expatriate workers that the original labour contract should be the same as the one submitted to the Ministry of Labour. The memorandum assigned a joint committee to draft a standard labour or model contract, and that document is still pending review by a technical panel composed of members from both countries.
Steps can be taken to avert contract substitution before it happens. In Nepal, for example, the embassy can authenticate a "demand letter" issued by the recruitment agency, which shows the original basic salary and all other employee benefits offered. "If the salary and other conditions are contrary to the demand letter, we will write to the company and if necessary, to the UAE government, to resolve them," said Dipak Adhikari, the deputy chief of mission at the Bangladeshi embassy.
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. "To avoid it, they should let us know about it before signing," he said. @Email:email@example.com