Visa amnesty offers UAE's 'runaway maids' hope for better life

Some have been living in isolation for years after fleeing their jobs


Amnesty seekers at the Al Shahama immigration centre in Abu Dhabi.

Thousands of undocumented workers streamed into the center today as they sought to take advantage of the government's new amnesty law. 
(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: Anna Zacharias
Section:  NA
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Inside a chandelier-lit tent in Al Shahama, young women crowded together in excitement, trepidation and hope.

Many had been living in hiding and isolation for years.

In the tent, they built new friendships by exchanging stories of loneliness in a foreign country.

The women had come to apply for amnesty in a Government programme that allows workers who have overstayed their visas to repatriate or continue to work in the UAE without penalty.

Among the thousands who have applied since the programme began last Wednesday, domestic workers emerged as a particularly vulnerable group.

Some fled employers or agencies in hope of a better life. Others had visas cancelled without their consent. Some left because of abuse.

Others were overworked. One left because she was young and had not expected such a demanding workload.

"They feel they are in a prison. You will hear stories of women who will go out and don't have anything to wear except the clothes [provided by] the employer."

Sponsors often expect staff to repay the cost of their visa and agency fees worth thousands of dirhams.

When this happens, workers consider flight to be an easier option, Mr Almazar said.


Read more:

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Domestic workers interviewed at the Shahama immigration centre were universal in their respect for the UAE Government and spoke in favour of the draft law signed by President Sheikh Khalifa in September last year.

The law limits domestic workers to shifts not exceeding 12 hours a day and guarantees paid sick leave, 30 days paid annual leave and one day off a week.

“In terms of limiting conflict arising from misunderstanding this development has been very helpful,” Mr Almazar said.

“If you look at the economic aspects of it, of course it means more expense for the employer and more benefit for the household worker.

"But basing it on social justice, I think it's recognising employers are in a better position than the workers and the workers need more protection.

“In the long term this will create a better employer-employee relationship and they can be confident that they will leave the household in the hands of someone who is treated well.”

Yet the new law has not been universality supported by employers, and the rights it guarantees are often not granted.

The draft law was hotly debated for six hours before it was passed by the Federal National Council.

When Kuwaiti model and influencer Sundus Al Qattan critiqued a similar law passed in Kuwait last month, she was met with criticism and support.

An Instagram in which she defended her position had more than 42,000 likes.

Many agreed with the blogger, whose rhetoric supported social norms that dictate young domestic workers be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Al Qattan told critics they had no right to speak on behalf of domestic workers.

“Only a worker with this kind of experience can express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction,” she said.

Despite the hardships they had overcome, many domestic workers still considered the Arabian Gulf a place of opportunity. So, why run?

Many felt too shy or afraid to approach their employer directly with complaints, either out of fear that they would not be believed, fear of retribution or, in one case, fear of disappointing a sponsor.

Herefive domestic workers tell their own stories of how they came to be known as runaway maids.