ABU DHABI // Employment agencies should make more effort to ensure families that hire housemaids are going to treat them fairly, Filipino labour and welfare officials said.
If they did, there might be fewer than the 100 runaway housemaids staying at a women's shelter at the Philippine embassy.
"Most of them are complaining of long working hours, lack of food and delayed wages," said Nasser Munder, the country's labour attaché in Abu Dhabi, who met representatives of recruitment agencies this week.
"Recruitment agencies can tell employers to pay extra for overtime. They can also inform them to provide rice, which is the staple food of Filipinos, instead of bread."
Agencies should make the employers understand that the maids' families are waiting for their salaries back home, he said.
"The sponsor can assist the worker in remitting the money to the Philippines," he said.
Contract substitution - when a maid is paid far less than the amount they sign up for - is a "perennial" problem, he said.
Since 2006, the Philippine government has required its citizens to be paid at least US$400 (Dh1,470) a month for domestic work. But that minimum is often flouted. "Some are paid Dh750 while a few get Dh900," Mr Munder said. He warned that he would stop processing applications from recruiters who were the subject of such complaints.
But if the maid absconds without a valid reason, Mr Munder said he would recommend to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration in Manila that she should be banned from future overseas work.
Some recruiters were indignant. "The problem is not with us," said the Emirati owner of an agency in Abu Dhabi, on the sidelines of the meeting. "The housemaid in the Philippines usually asks for US$200 or agrees to be paid that."
Many Filipinas would like to come to the UAE to work as housemaids, he said. "But after four to five months, they decide to look for another job," he said. "They complain that they have too much work."
Employers pay as much as Dh10,000 in recruitment and visa fees to hire a housemaid, he said. "She can't just leave to find another job or return to the Philippines - it's not fair to the employer."
Mohammed Yakoub, who also runs an agency in Abu Dhabi, blamed the maids themselves. "Some housemaids sign a $400 contract in the Philippines and when they arrive here, they agree to sign a new contract with a $200 salary."
The majority of absconding maids who are now staying at the Philippine Embassy's shelter usually come up with lies, he said. "They would often complain that their madam beat them; they do not have enough food; or they work long hours," Mr Yacoub said.
Hartie Relampagos, a Filipina secretary at a recruitment agency, complained the maids were being "pampered by the embassy".
"Housemaids should understand their job. But when they arrive here, they complain that they don't want to take care of children. They just run away."
She said a US$300 monthly salary was "just fair". "We should be realistic here," she said. "Many of them are not even high school or college graduates."
But Mr Munder was adamant. "There are quite a few recruitment agencies that refuse to provide maids to employers unless they agree to pay $400," he said. "Let's just stick to the law."
The meeting follows the UAE's signing last month of an international convention to safeguard domestic workers' rights.
The UAE voted in favour of the ILO Convention 189 and Recommendation 201 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers at a conference in Geneva on June 16.
Embassies said support for the charter would mean better employment conditions for thousands of housemaids and nannies.
Mr Munder said the charter addressed problems commonly encountered by domestic staff such as non-payment of wages, overwork and contract substitution.
It promises them clearly defined conditions of employment before they start work, a monthly salary paid in cash, at least a day off every week and freedom of association and collective bargaining.
It also requires governments to regulate private employment agencies, investigate complaints, and stop employers deducting recruitment fees from maids' wages.
However UAE officials have yet to spell out what changes will be made to give the charter the force of law, or when. Speaking after the signing of the charter, Humaid Rashid bin Demas, the under secretary of the Ministry of Labour, said the UAE had "accepted an international and national obligation", adding: "We hope our commitment to domestic workers will be both a legal and a moral one."