Baldoz in UAE to address domestic workers issues
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – High-level talks are underway between the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to conclusively address issues affecting approximately 100,000 Filipino household service workers (HSWs) in the UAE.
This was gathered during a recent visit to the UAE by Philippine Labor Secretary Rosalinda Dimapilis-Baldoz, who told Rappler she will be presenting Convention 189 of the United Nation’s International Labour Office as a take-off point for discussion when she sits with UAE Labor Minister HE Saqr Ghobash.
The UAE Ministry of Labour (MOL) does not have jurisdiction over cases of abuse involving HSWs, which are handled by the police.
This, Baldoz said, has made it difficult to resolve these cases, which range from long working hours to non-payment of wages, sexual harassment, and rape.
“Because of the nature of their (HSWs’) work, they have a very high exposure to exploitation. Despite this, there are no mechanisms for redress," she said.
Baldoz, a practicing lawyer who rose from the ranks of the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) as mediator-arbiter in 1976, said DOLE and MOL were in the process of reviewing documents at the technical level prior to holding the formal talks. No specific date was given on when the discussions would begin. She said this is the first time such bilateral talks will be held.
“We have long been fighting for this,” Baldoz said, referring to efforts by the Philippine government to protect HSWs in the UAE from abuse. “The whole world now acknowledges the rights of household helps,” she added.
Without redress, HSWs often resort to running away from their employers. According to Labor Attaché Delmer Cruz, a lawyer and head of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office-Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (POLO-OWWA), there was a monthly average of 100 runaways in 2012 and 2013. From January this year so far, he said, the average was 70.
There are 50,000 HSWs in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, according to Cruz. The Northern Emirates is composed of Fujairah, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm al-Quwain and Sharjah
Lawyer Ophelia Almenario, Philippine Labor Attaché to Abu Dhabi, said the number of HSWs in her jurisdiction “doesn’t fall far behind” those in Dubai and the Northern Emirates.
Runaways who managed to make it to POLO-OWWA, which is at the Philippine Consul General’s Office (PCGO) in Al Qusais, Dubai, or the Philippine Embassy in Abu Dhabi are processed for repatriation.
As of press time, there were 24 runways at POLO-OWWA Dubai. A volunteer said there used to be as many as 250. How the number goes down depends on how fast funds can be acquired for plane tickets.
Almenario said the Philippine Embassy in Abu Dhabi has 70 runaways under its care.
She explained that the cost of repatriation is shouldered by the placement agency that sent the contract worker to the UAE. In cases where the agency has stopped operation, is suspended or had its license cancelled, repatriation expenses are sourced from OWWA if the worker is an OWWA member, or from the Assistance to Nationals (ATN) program of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) if the worker is undocumented and, therefore, not an OWWA member.
Ironically, employers can press charges against the runaway for abscondment, under which the worker is deported.
There have been incidents where runaways, fearing deportation, seek help from friends, which only makes them even more vulnerable to abuse as they either end up moving in with a stranger to hide and do odd jobs including engaging in prostitution to survive, officials said.
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) has suspended the deployment of new HSWs to UAE in June this year over a unified contract policy implemented through MOL Circular 29 dated May 26, 2014. The circular removes the required contract verification by the Philippine Missions in Abu Dhabi and Dubai which was being done to ensure that jobs actually exist.
There were some 88 manpower agencies in Abu Dhabi and another 112 in Dubai that were regularly processing HSW contracts, sending an average of 300 contracts daily to the Philippine Embassy in Abu Dhabi and PCGO for attestation before the POEA suspension was imposed.
In adopting Convention 189, ILO, the highest international governing body on labor affairs, noted that as “many domestic workers endure poor working conditions and are excluded from legal protection around the globe,” the measure “marks a paradigm shift embodying a global consensus recognizing domestic work as an occupation and a sector in its own right.”
“Protecting the rights of domestic workers is therefore placed in the context of creating decent employment opportunities and promoting sustainable social and economic development more generally, in light of the increasing demand for care and household services,” ILO’s background paper on Convention 189 presented at the body’s 102nd session in Geneva, stated.
“The ILO’s call for decent work for domestic workers is being echoed and supported by the United Nations and a range of other international organizations,” it added.
Countries that have so far taken steps to protect and uphold domestic helpers’ rights following the adoption of Convention 189 in 2011 are Argentina, Bahrain, Brazil, Costa Rica, India, Ireland, Morocco, Namibia, the Philippines, Spain, Tanzania, and Thailand.
The ILO said technical assistance on domestic work is currently being provided in 20 countries, while tripartite regional knowledge-sharing fora on the matter have been held or were planned for the 2012-2013 period. Each event addressed a selected policy area, including labor inspection, wages and working time, the extension of legal protection, social security, and the promotion of collective organization.
Baldoz’ visit to the UAE was part of an official trip to the Middle East that began on November 21 in Qatar, followed by Kuwait, then Saudi Arabia and lastly, the UAE, from December 5 to 7. Also on the trip were POEA administrator Hans Cacdac, and Rebecca Calzado, OWWA administrator, among other top Philippine Labor officials.
Rape case, vindication
At the backdrop of the bilateral talks is a recent Dubai court ruling against an Emirati soldier who was sentenced in July to 7 years in jail for raping a Filipina domestic helper on November 21, 2013.
Dubai Criminal Court documents showed that the soldier, referred to only as “SA,” raped the victim upon returning home.
“He...asked me if anyone else was at the house. When I said ‘No,’ he grabbed my arm and started to take me to his room,” the 29-year-old HSW, whose identity was withheld, was quoted as saying by local newspapers in reports of the court hearing.
The victim said she screamed for help and begged him, unsuccessfully, to let her go. She later managed to run to the bathroom where she locked herself in.
“He showered then came to where I was hiding and apologized,” she said.
The victim said she waited until SA has left, then sneaked out of the house and took a bus to PCGO where she told the attending staff of the incident.
The victim was sent to Rashid Hospital in Oud Metha, whose attending personnel, in turn, advised her to go to a police station to report the rape first. “AA,” 35, a police major, testified that a patrol was sent to the soldier’s house in Oud Al Mutainah after the domestic help reported the incident to the Al Qusais police station.
“We obtained a prosecution approval. One officer climbed the wall and arrested the defendant (inside his house),” said AA.
DNA tests on samples taken from the woman’s body matched that of the defendant’s.
Frank Cimafranca, Philippine consul general to Dubai and the Northern Emirates, said the HSW has been placed under the care of POLO-OWWA.
He said POLO-OWWA, which has jurisdiction on her case, guided her through the process – from filing a report to the police, to having a medical check up, which subsequently led to the arrest of her employer at his residence on the same night.
“The Filipina household worker was referred to the Labor office to provide her shelter at the Filipino Workers Resource Center (FWRC), which is managed by POLO-OWWA Dubai, and to assist her in taking the necessary steps to preclude the employer from taking action against her for absconding,” Cimafranca said.
Issues about abuse of HSWs in the UAE caught international attention in 1994 when an under-aged Muslim girl from Sultan Kudarat working as a domestic helper in Abu Dhabi’s neighboring town of Al Ain, ended up stabbing her employer 34 times in self defense for alleged attempted rape.
Sarah Balabagan had her death sentence reduced to a year’s imprisonment and 100 strokes of cane, plus blood money reportedly on personal appeal by then UAE president, the late Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (popularly, Sheikh Zayed) to the victim’s family. Balabagan returned home on August 1, 1996. – Rappler.com