Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report on October 23 on the treatment of migrant domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), detailing the extreme labor abuse inflicted upon female domestic workers, many of them Filipina, in that country. The UAE has just joined the governing board of the International Labor Organization, and starting on October 30, will be participating in the ILO’s current session, focusing on various issues, including forced labor. Nation-states, particularly the Philippines, which has a deep stake in the reform and enforcement of labor laws in the UAE, must call on the UAE to act on the abuse of migrant workers, particularly as that country moves into its new role in the ILO.
If we allow for the UAE’s kafala visa system to persist unreformed even as that country assumes a seat on the ILO’s governing board, it will make a mockery of yet another international governing institution, in the same way that despite much of its good work the United Nations (UN) has become a poster of moral relativism in the face of genocide and terrorism, bowing to the divisions between and interests of the globe’s more powerful states at the expense of the UN’s charter. Recall that the UN from 1979 to 1990 extended a seat in its General Assembly to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, and failed to hold Indonesia (a crucial American ally) accountable for its invasion, annexation, and brutal massacres of and in East Timor over 1975-1999.
According to HRW’s research, under the UAE’s kafala system, a domestic worker cannot change employment before his/her contract ends without the employer’s consent. In the many cases of physical abuse, overwork, underpay, food deprivation, and restricted mobility—forced to work up to 21 hours a day and prohibited from leaving the house in some cases, and with passports illegally confiscated by employers as collateral in almost all cases—this inability to terminate employment without consent amounts to forced labor or trafficking. According to HRW it was only in June of this year that the UAE revised standard domestic workers’ contracts to require a weekly day off and eight hours of rest in any 24-hour period, but with weak enforcement and legal rights and recourse, migrant domestic workers in the UAE are left with very little real protection.
In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the largest problem for foreign domestic workers is debt bondage, which the UN has referred to as a form of “modern-day slavery,” according to an August 10 article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), “Maid to Pay.” Employment agencies that place foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong charge placement fees up to fifty times the legal amount of 10 per cent of the first pay packet. As most migrant workers cannot pay this bill, they then are forced to enter into accepting a “loan” from the employment agencies and to pay it back at a rate of 70-80 per cent of their monthly salary for seven to eight months, leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse and bound to their jobs and to poverty, at the moment of their first introduction to a new country and living situation. Employers in Hong Kong, meanwhile, are either unaware of this situation or choose to ignore it, some reportedly even aiding the agencies in collecting illegal fees by deducting these from the workers’ wages and retaining the workers’ passports to ensure full payment to the agencies.
Scott Stiles, the co-founder of Fair Employment Agency, a new, non-profit recruitment organization for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, told SCMP that in order to solve the grave problems of labor abuse, “you have to take the debt away to remove the pressure, so that someone who is being abused can come forward and say ‘I need out.’” Stiles believes: “if we can solve the debt issue, the other problems of human trafficking and more egregious forms of abuse in Hong Kong will solve themselves.” Fair Employment Agency seeks to change this system, offering reasonable rates for worker training, foregoing the 10 per cent fee of the first pay packet, in conformation with ILO standards that disallow this fee though it is a legal levy in Hong Kong, and seeking to carefully match employers and employees. The next step for the social enterprise is to establish an accreditation program to give an ethical stamp of approval to other Hong Kong placement agencies as well as a microfinance company in Hong Kong. These are the kinds of agencies that the Philippines should seek to fund, support, and promote among its potential overseas workers, alongside other legal advocacy groups in host countries, such as Hong Kong’s Helpers for Domestic Helpers.
David Bishop, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Business, remains hopeful due to what he characterizes as Hong Kong’s educated population and history as an example of good global practices. However, he underscored in his discussion with the SCMP that “in terms of human trafficking and migrant labor,” debt bondage is the “largest women’s rights issue in the world and especially in Asia.” It is not merely a labor issue, but indeed a women’s rights issue, and a practice that has had deep social effects on families all over the Philippines as women go overseas to take care of other people’s children and homes, while their own are bereft of mother and wife.
Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) comprise 20 percent of the Philippines’ entire labor force, a legacy of President Marcos’s Labor Code of 1974, an irresponsible long-term national labor solution of promoting overseas work to boost the domestic economy that has only persisted and grown since martial law. The Philippines must raise minimum wages and create opportunity for its citizens here at home, but as an urgent first step in fulfilling its duty to its people, the Philippine government must be stronger in its insistence on minimum salaries and just labor conditions from employers and placement agencies for our OFWs. And the time to place crucial strategic pressure on the UAE, and to call on other states to do the same, is right now.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University