x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 October 2017

Tighter employment laws to ensure better protection for UAE domestic workers

Household staff, such as maids, nannies, gardeners, cooks or drivers, currently fall under the purview of the Ministry of Interior, and are not protected by laws enforced by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation (MHRE), formerly known as the Ministry of Labour.

ABU DHABI // Domestic workers will be assured of greater protection as their employment will soon be regulated by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation.

The new procedure will begin in Dubai early next year, and be expanded to the rest of the country by the summer, it was announced at the weekend.

“When this Cabinet decision takes effect, we expect the ministry to release the implementing rules and regulations in the next few days,” said Constancio Vingno Jr, the Philippine ambassador to the UAE. “My understanding is that in principle, domestic workers will be treated equally, like skilled workers and professionals.”

At the moment, household staff such as maids, nannies, gardeners, cooks or drivers, fall under the purview of the Ministry of Interior, and are not protected by laws enforced by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation (MHRE), formerly known as the Ministry of Labour.

Last May, MHRE and the Philippines’ labour undersecretary discussed the problems faced by domestic workers at the Abu Dhabi Dialogue event.

“This may be the offshoot of their discussions,” Mr Vingno said. “It’s a welcome development as they have been studying the problem and addressed the concerns of the domestic workforce. Contract substitution will soon be a thing of the past.”

Contract substitution happens when a second, inferior, labour contract to the signed original is presented to a worker, either before leaving her home country or after arriving in the UAE.

Employers and recruitment agencies were upbeat about the new procedure, but raised a number of concerns.

“It’s good news but will it mean higher recruitment fees?” said Issam Al Khalifi, 40, an Emirati who employs a Filipina nanny to take care of her three children, aged 6, 5 and 1.

“We hope that the processing of contracts will be faster.”

Another employer Sarah Abo, 39, an accountant from Sudan, said people should treat their maids with respect, while maids should be aware of their rights as well as their responsibilities.

“It’s better that the contract will clearly define the rights and obligation of each party,” she said.

“I know that the UAE Government is doing its best to further protect rights of domestic workers and all categories in the community.”

A Filipina who runs a recruitment agency in Dubai said she hoped the new procedure would result in the lifting of the temporary suspension of the hiring of domestic workers to the UAE.

“We’ve not been able to hire household service workers from the Philippines for more than two years so we’re hoping we can start recruiting by the first quarter,” said the 52-year-old. “We hope that issues will be resolved soon.”

The Philippine overseas labour offices in the UAE stopped verifying contracts for domestic workers in 2014 after a new standard contract produced by the Ministry took effect on June 1 of the same year.

The MHRA mandate may pave the way for the lifting of the temporary suspension of the Philippines’ role in verifying and attesting contracts to permit domestic staff to work in the UAE.

“That’s for our Department of Labour and Employment officials to decide if the terms are acceptable,” Mr Vingno said. “The basic requirements have to be met: $400 minimum monthly wage, non-retention of a worker’s passport by the employer, and weekly time off.”

Before the standard contract was introduced, employers were required to ratify staff contracts at the Philippine embassy, enabling it to keep a record of Filipino nationals working in the UAE and ensure their rights as workers were being met.

Once the contract was ratified, the Philippine overseas labour office would issue a letter of verification, permitting the domestic staff to travel to the UAE.

But the Philippine government refused to approve the new standard contract, which means domestic staff hoping to work in the UAE cannot legally leave the Philippines.

UAE-based agencies accredited with the Philippine overseas labour offices in Abu Dhabi and Dubai normally charge up to Dh7,500 in fees, inclusive of air tickets.

Recruiters have alleged that the temporary suspension of maid deployment has resulted in a black market for maids, with employers willing to pay Dh20,000 to Dh25,000 in fees to bring a maid to the UAE.

Mr Al Khalifi, who paid Dh9,000 to an agency in Al Ain, said many sponsors were forced to pay double.

With the new procedure, UAE recruitment agencies will now be able to operate and have a counterpart agency in Manila, Mr Vingno said.

“A partnership between the recruitment agencies here and in the Philippines will ensure workers are adequately protected,” he said.

“When we see the fine print, we’ll have a better understanding of the UAE government’s move.”

rruiz@thenational.ae