Despite bilateral agreements aimed at protecting overseas workers, the well-being of many expatriate labourers in the UAE remains in question. But solutions do exists.
Philippines and the UAE have joint duty to protect workers
Labour relations between the UAE and the Philippines is one of supply and demand, as is the case for every country that sends its citizens to work overseas. For the Philippines, it is important to remember that workers, unable to find employment at home, keep local economies afloat with billions of dollars in remittances sent by around 10 million overseas Filipinos.
The former president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, started the overseas labour programme to the Gulf in the 1970s. Since then, every administration, including the present government under President Benigno Aquino, has continued its heavy reliance on exporting labour; more than a million Filipino workers are sent abroad yearly.
In the Philippines, the overseas labour market is deregulated, which has given birth to a lucrative labour export industry. The complications of the industry mean that it has gone beyond government control. The arrival of recruitment agencies that act as intermediaries has also corrupted the process.
There have been efforts to address these shortcomings. In 2007, the UAE and the Philippine governments signed a memorandum of understanding that was aimed at promoting healthy relations through a bilateral labour service cooperation. But this agreement failed to recognise the need for protections for overseas workers. Even today the rights and well-being of overseas workers, in this case Filipino but concerning many expatriate workers in the Gulf, remains in question.
Overseas Filipino workers in the UAE are mostly employed in the service sector in hotels and restaurants; other key sectors are domestic staff, medicine, IT and education.
Based on the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration records, in 2010 there were more than 200,000 Filipinos working in the UAE, in the Gulf second only to Saudi Arabia, which employs nearly 300,000. But there are probably hundreds of thousands more; Filipinos who jump from one job to another after running away from their employers.
Often this is due to labour malpractices, failure to pay salaries, unpaid overtime work, or sexual and physical abuse. Our labour advocacy office receives two to three abuse allegations every day.
It is worth noting that the UAE government recently published and distributed worker's rights booklets translated into various languages. This was an attempt at explaining the rights and responsibilities of migrant workers as well as provide a guide to get legal redress in case of abuse, harassment or malpractice.
The Philippine government, meanwhile, has amended the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 prescribing policy to send workers only to countries where there are laws recognising the rights of overseas workers or guarantee programmes promoting their welfare. Every Philippine diplomatic post is required to submit its assessment and issue certifications in compliance with this law.
But taken together, these protections have so far failed, and are likely to continue to fail because of the very nature of the deregulated labour market that breeds mistreatment and exploitation. Improvements are possible, and the UAE and the Philippine government must work in collaboration to make them.
First, we suggest both side review bilateral agreements to conform to international labour standards. Both governments should renegotiate or scrap agreements that have allowed for exploitation.
Second, joint actions are needed to put an end to all forms of illegal recruitment and trafficking. Both countries should investigate recruitment agencies to enforce fines, suspend licences and conduct prosecutions when necessary. The list of government-accredited agencies should be checked and strictly monitored. Mechanisms should be in place to catch and jail human traffickers.
Third, laws should be reviewed to ensure that they do not have an anti-migrant bias. Women and minors should be protected, as they are the most vulnerable groups of overseas workers, many of whom are victims of slavery conditions, servitude and sexual abuse.
And last, governments need to provide direct services and assistance to migrant workers. The Philippine government needs to allocate sufficient material resources and funds for distressed workers, including legal assistance, support for repatriation and reintegration, and other related needs.
This would be the beginning. The success of any policy, programme or law depends on government implementation and the participation of every stakeholder.
Above all, the treatment of migrant workers as commodities for export must be corrected, in their home nations as well as host countries. Governments play a vital role in changing that notion by recognising that they are duty-bound to provide protection and promote the well-being of migrant workers who contribute in economic and social terms to the building of the nation.
Nhel Morona is the secretary general of the UAE chapter of Migrante International