The legal questions surrounding absconding maids can be tricky, experts say.
Maids who abscond present legal hurdles
DUBAI // The issue of maids running away from their sponsors is a tricky one for law enforcement and humanitarian agencies.
Thousands abscond every year, many pursued by claims they stole from or otherwise harmed their sponsors. In one four-month stretch last year, 1,094 were arrested in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, police said.
Yet experts say many maids flee their sponsors because of mistreatment or because they are misled by compatriots who tell them they can work illegally for more money and more freedom. At worst, a runaway maid can be tricked into becoming an illegal worker, then blackmailed into servitude.
Contract substitution, where maids are promised one thing in their home country but receive worse terms after arriving in the UAE, is also a major problem.
Maids speak of ugly details that made them run away from their sponsors, including mistreatment, molestation and rape.
"We are clueless about what to do if we were abused," said AJ, 19, who said she ran away from her employer in Al Ain after his wife tortured her.
If a household worker runs away from her employer because she was physically abused, she has the right to file a criminal case against her employer. The police will call the employer to investigate, according to Ophelia Almenario, the welfare officer at the Philippine overseas labour office in Abu Dhabi.
Many embassies offer shelter for workers who have fled abuse. The Indonesian embassy is looking after about 75 maids, and the Filipino embassy often has more than 100, for whom it provides food, shelter, and repatriation assistance.
Obaid Ali Obaid from Jaafar Alwan, Al Jaziri and Associates Advocates and Legal Consultants, said a maid who has been abused should turnfirst to the police, then to her embassy.
"If there marks of abuse on her body that will back up her case," he said, adding that any witnesses will bolster her arguments.
Because not all types of abuse leave marks, he added, going to the police station or her country's embassy is crucial to getting her story on the record.
The process is less harrowing when the mistreatment is financial rather than physical.
If a maid leaves because she has not been paid for more than a month, she can file a complaint directly to immigration officials. If the employer agrees to pay the worker, she must return.
Maids in that situation can also seek help from their embassy; welfare officers can contact the employer directly to seek a resolution.
If an employer reports to immigration officials that a maid has run away, the employer must surrender the maid's passport to immigration officials and provide a one-way ticket to her home country.
LA, a 51-year-old Pakistani, said she worked for a couple who were tough with her.
"They became even tougher when I befriended their three-year-old son," she said.
When she defended the boy after his mother beat him, the couple became furious, she said.
The 37-year-old husband restrained her while the 26-year-old wife burnt her hands with a heated spoon. And eventually she was pushed from a second-floor window, suffering two broken legs.
She said she returned after being paid Dh5,000 and told she would be treated better.
Soon afterwards she was beaten again - so she fled, she said.
In December, the Abu Dhabi Government required all maids reported as runaways to be processed for deportation at a centre in Al Wathba prison, with the aim of speeding up repatriation.
And on June 16 in Geneva, the UAE voted for the ILO Convention 189 and Recommendation 201 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. 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.
The agreement promises clearly defined conditions of employment, a monthly salary paid in cash, at least a day off every week, freedom of association and collective bargaining.
It also requires governments to regulate private employment agencies, investigate complaints and stop employers from deducting recruitment fees from maids' wages.
* With additional reporting by Ramona Ruiz