Thursday, March 17, 2011

Stuck behind closed doors

At 5am last Thursday, Gina stuffed her belongings into two bin bags and waited for the husband of the Dubai household where she had lived for three years, to go to work. The 44-year-old, who has worked as a housemaid for more than 15 years, said she could no longer cope with verbal abuse, 18-hour shifts, not a single day off and no freedom.

Dressed in the tatty pink pyjama-style unif­orm her ‘madam’ insisted she wore, the mother-of-one slipped out of the garage door, hailed a cab and headed for what she hopes will be help from the Philippines Embassy. She told 7DAYS: “My heart was beating very fast when I left the house. I left my madam a note to say I am sorry but I cannot take the treatment any more.

“She would say to me ‘you’re just a maid, you cannot do anything’. I know I am only a maid but I am good enough to teach her children, to take care of them - so why should I be treated like this? I am a human being.”

Gina contacted 7DAYS last week and claimed she had never been out of the house alone in three years and was terrified of leaving her Emirati employer as she had no idea what was waiting for her on the outside world. Whispering from a secret mobile in the sprawling villa’s basement, she begged for help. “I am scared because I want to carry on working and I know to leave is a risk,” she said. “Being a maid is fine for me, I have worked for some very good families in other countries in the past and I am not afraid to work hard.
But my employer said I could not leave her unless I paid her a lot of money. I don’t have it.”

Gina, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is one of thousands of women who arrive in the UAE every year - ready to become part of a new family having waved goodbye to their own.
While many go on to earn a living and are treated properly, others are subjected to abuse, are underpaid and left to battle a complex labour system loaded against them, leaving them little option but to run.

The Philippines Embassy was alerted to Gina’s case and could only advise her to flee. She is now under the care of Philippines labour officials, who will attempt to pick their way through the minefield of red-tape awaiting domestic staff in this situation.

An official at the Philippines Overseas Labour Office said: “There are forms to fill in and her information will be logged and someone will investigate the case.
“At this stage, we can’t say whether she will be able to work here any more.”

Runaway maids are usually deported and slapped with a labour ban - preventing them from working in the UAE for at least six months.
The prospect of being blacklisted deters many domestic staff from leaving their employers, even when badly abused. If a passport ban is issued by Dubai’s Naturalisation and Resi­dence Department (DNRD), there is no right to appeal for the maid. The process requires nothing from the worker herself - no state­ment, no input.
The Ministry of Labour does not cover domestic staff. Their rights are regulated by their own embassies, making them difficult to enforce because there is no federal law in place to protect them.

The DNRD approves contracts between maids and employers and has worked to improve transparency between the two parties so each know their obligations. It has also introduced an arbitration system to deal with complaints. But the DNRD is clear - a runaway maid waves her rights by default.

An official from the Ethiopian Embassy, which also has thousands of nationals working as domestic staff, said maids like Gina can find themselves in a catch-22 situation. “It is very hard for the workers because when you are inside someone’s house, people on the outside are not aware of what might be going on,” he said. “If the girl is never allowed to leave the house, how will she make a complaint? If she does, she will have to run. And then if she runs, she’s a runaway. What this shows is a big problem with the system.”
But for now, Gina is relieved to be away from her employer. She said: “I was sad to leave the youngest children because they are always hugging me and run to me to tell me when they do well at school.
“I wish I could explain to them why I had to leave.
But for now, I feel relief. I just hope I can carry on working.”

The sponsorship system and treatment of domestic workers across the Gulf has caught the attention of human rights groups and campaigners worldwide. Along with Human Rights Watch, embassies and the United Nations, a 2010 report from the Migrant Forum of Asia (MFA) highlighted the pitfalls of the current regulations in the UAE.

MFA said mistreated women are unable to mount legal challenges against employers because they cannot afford it.
“Economic factors, including migration-related debt and family members who are dependent on remittances, place migrant women under pressure to continue earning,” the report said.

“If women decide to pursue legal action and their trial is unsucc­ess­ful, migrant women face a ban of six months to one year for terminating their contract. “In the rare case that an abusive employer is brought to justice, the legal process will leave them without an income for months.”

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