x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Philippine ambassador takes up maids' pay fight

Diplomat wants meeting with UAE authorities to tackle problem of workers who are receive only half of the wage they are promised.

A woman sleeps at the Filipino Workers Resource Centre in Abu Dhabi.
A woman sleeps at the Filipino Workers Resource Centre in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // The domestic workforce of Filipinas is being systematically short-changed in their pay believes the country's representative to the UAE, who has announced she plans to do something about it. On Friday, Grace Princesa, the Philippine ambassador to the UAE, told a gathering of the newly formed Filipino Human Resources Practitioners' Association that she would seek a meeting with UAE authorities to address the issue of contract substitution. It sees women offered one rate when working with agencies in the Philippines, and another, lower rate, either shortly before they leave or after they arrive in the UAE.

Ms Princesa did not indicate when the meeting with the UAE authorities would take place. The majority of the household workers in the UAE earn US$200 (Dh735) per month, half of the $400 minimum wage set by the Philippine government, said the ambassador. "We don't like that," she said. "We're selling ourselves short." Of particular concern are more than 100 women who have run away from their employers and are staying at the Filipino Workers Resource Centre, a women's shelter run by labour and welfare officials, at any one time.

One of them is Gina de la Pena, who left Manila to work in Abu Dhabi in December 2008 after accepting a job offer and payment of $400 per month. But when she arrived here, a Filipina secretary at the recruitment agency in the capital said she would earn only $200. "I could not do anything about it since I was already here," she said. "Besides, the agency paid for all recruitment costs, including my airline ticket from Davao City [southern Philippines] to Manila before I left for Abu Dhabi. I was indebted to them."

It turned out her male Emirati employer was "very strict" and shouted at her. "My madam was very good to me, but she could not do anything," she said. "I begged her to return me to the recruitment agency but she knew her husband would not approve of it." She fled their home on June 23, after a heated argument during which she said her male employer shoved and kicked her. "He threatened to send me to jail for one month," she said. "I was scared, so I was forced to run away."

She has been staying at the shelter ever since. Housemaids who earned $200, and were mistreated and forced to flee their employers, "could earn this amount in the Philippines", said Ms Princesa. With Benigno Aquino's new government promising more job opportunities, Filipinos may no longer need to leave the country to work. As part of the Philippine government's reintegration programme, the ambassador wants to link with organisations to provide these women a job or a means of livelihood when they return home. She said at least two women who stayed at the Abu Dhabi shelter had been promised jobs by the Mega Fishing Corporation in Zamboanga City, southern Philippines.

Nasser Munder, the labour attache in Abu Dhabi, said women should begin to object to recruitment agencies' attempts to cut their salaries. "We need our workers to co-operate with us to prevent recruitment agencies from paying them a lower salary than the stipulated $400." While housemaids such as Ms de la Pena are not informed about their lower wage until after they arrive in the UAE, others are told about the change in their monthly salary before they leave the Philippines. Even though the labour office verified and approved the contract with a $400 wage, the recruitment agency in Manila asked workers to sign a new contract for less, he said.

"She has a choice not to proceed," Mr Munder said. "She could report the recruitment agency to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration [POEA] to sanction the agency." The POEA is an attached agency of the department of labour and employment, which promotes and monitors overseas employment. "We also encourage our workers not to sign a new contract," he said. "I've always been asking the women here [at the shelter] why they had accepted a lower salary when they could have earned much more."

The majority of the women at the shelter earned about Dh800, while a few were paid Dh1,000, he said. Another Filipina housemaid, 27, from Bohol, a province about 600km south of the Philippine capital, Manila, said the recruitment agency in Manila told her the minimum wage was $300. "I really had no idea about the minimum wage," she said. "I was paid Dh700 in September and a month later, they increased it to Dh750."

"My employer and his family were all good to me," she said. "But they scolded me for phoning my relatives here in Abu Dhabi. I told them I'd like to return home and they sent me here [at the shelter]." Mr Munder said part of the problem was that many housemaids, recruited from the far-flung areas in the provinces, were poorly educated or illiterate. "They do not even bother to read their contracts," he said. "Many are happy to get a passport and leave the country to work."

Of the estimated 35,000 Filipina housemaids working in the Emirates, between 15,000 and 20,000 are in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, according to Mr Munder. About 130 women, mostly housemaids, are staying at the Abu Dhabi shelter after complaining of lack of food and sleep, maltreatment, overwork and not being paid. @Email:rruiz@thenational.ae