ABU DHABI // The Philippine government should resist the call to protect maids from maltreatment by preventing them from seeking work in the Middle East, a Filipino labour official in Abu Dhabi said.
Instead, the government should provide domestic workers with information they can use at mandatory pre-departure briefings, said Nasser Munder, the labour attaché in Abu Dhabi.
“Many of them are attending the seminar just to comply with the requirements for overseas employment.
“What if we conduct an exam to check their level of preparedness?” he said.
He also proposed a “massive information drive” in the Philippines to ensure that Filipinos are sent abroad by licensed agencies accredited by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), an agency of the department of labour and employment, which promotes and monitors overseas employment.
Late last year, three politicians from the Philippines called on their government to stop sending household workers to the Middle East after witnessing first-hand the plight of domestic workers in some cities within the region.
Luz Ilagan, who represents the women’s group Gabriela in Congress, and congressmen Carlos Padilla and Rufus Rodriguez, investigated cases of illegal recruitment and visited Filipinas in shelters in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in November.
Their fact-finding trip also included visits to women who sought refuge in embassies and consulates in Amman, Jeddah and Riyadh. They interviewed at least 400 women who fled their employers’ homes after complaining of lack of food and sleep, maltreatment, overwork and not being paid.
In Dubai, they were confronted with three cases of sex trafficking. The women told them that they were supposed to be domestic helpers but ended up in a brothel.
“Filipinas are generally vulnerable to abuse and are willing to gamble when recruited to work overseas,” Mrs Ilagan told The National in November. “We have to educate women to be more careful.”
The three politicians are members of the committee on overseas workers affairs and the regional ban on domestic workers is one of the recommendations cited in their committee report which will be submitted to Congress. They also called for the Philippine government to ban employers cited for abuse and for the POEA to punish agencies involved in illegal recruitment.
But Mr Munder said employers were not to blame for about 60 to 70 per cent of maids’ complaints at the labour-office shelter in Abu Dhabi. At the moment, there are about 170 women in the shelter, after 23 were sent home recently, he said.
“Allegations of maltreatment such as physical abuse are isolated,” Mr Munder said.
“The majority are not prepared to work in the Middle East. They find it hard to deal with homesickness, the language barrier and culture shock.”
On maids’ allegations of lack of food or sleep and unpaid salaries, he said most of these could be resolved with the employers. “But the housemaids are usually adamant to go home,” he said. “Some quarrel with their co-workers and later decide to leave their employers.”
Ellene Sana, the executive director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA) in Quezon City in the Philippines, said a ban did not guarantee that Filipina migrants would stay away from the Middle East.
“What will stop migrants from coming up with other job categories or contracts for jobs other than domestic work?” she said.
“Some of them already do this in order to circumvent the new policies for household service workers.
“The CMA shares the concern of our legislators to stop abuses against women migrant domestic workers,” she said. “But we do not agree that a deployment ban at this time will be able to address the deplorable living and working conditions of our women migrant workers in the Middle East and the GCC,” Ms Sana said.
There are about 30,000 documented housemaids in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, and 18,000 in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Ruwais, according to Philippine labour officials.
A Filipina housemaid in Dubai, Emma Tagboy, 29, said: “It is good that our government is doing something to protect us. But what will my compatriots do in the Philippines? There are not enough jobs there.”
Every month, she sends 15,000 pesos (Dh1,150) to her parents who take care of her 16-month-old baby boy in Pagadian City in southern Philippines.
Her Canadian employer in Dubai gives her time off every Thursday afternoon and allows her to return to their home on Saturday morning to resume her household duties.
“I’m so lucky,” she said. “They told me that I’m just human and that I need to strike a balance between work and life.”
Ms Tagboy was hired two years ago after her former employer’s family, also Canadian, moved to France. “I used to earn $200 (Dh735) which was the minimum monthly wage then,” he said. “When the [Philippine] government increased it to $400, they paid me that amount and I also got a salary increase every year.”
In December 2006, the Philippines government set a $400 monthly minimum wage for domestic workers worldwide.
The remittances of Filipino migrants have been a major contributor to the country’s economy.
In total, $15.8 billion was remitted by overseas Filipino workers worldwide in the first 11 months of 2009, up 5.1 per cent from the $15.02 billion recorded in the same period in 2008, according to the Philippine central bank.
By Ramona Ruiz