What happens when a domestic helper requests assistance from an embassy? – Processes carried out to repatriate fleeing Filipino housekeepers

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Angelita Narvaez, Refugee Administrator and Deputy Labor Attaché at the Philippine Embassy.

KUWAIT: There are approximately 220,000 Filipinos in Kuwait, according to official immigration records revealed by Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait Renato Pedro Villa during the 118th Philippine Independence Day celebration in the month last. The majority of them work as household help, about 60 percent of the total. There are many reported cases of abuse in the domestic work sector committed against Filipino domestic workers and nationals of other countries who export domestic workers. The Philippine Embassy operates two shelters for abused workers; one in Hateen, where 150 abused maids are housed, and the other in Faiha, with around 270, as of May 25, 2016.

But what really happens when a cleaning lady runs away and asks the embassy for help? The Kuwait Times spoke to Angelita Narvaez, administrator of the shelter and deputy labor attaché at the embassy.

Standardization procedures
Kuwait Times: When a domestic worker (HSW) runs away and asks the embassy for help, what should she expect? What are the steps taken?
Narvaez: We have standard operating procedures in the embassy manual with basic guidelines that are followed. You are considered a runaway if you report to the embassy within 48 hours of escaping your employer. If you come after about a week then we think there is something wrong with the worker so we will try to see how we can help. We ask them to sign an affidavit with their story explaining why they ended up at the Embassy.

Those who have stayed a long time away from their real employers are not accepted at all at the shelter, but we will continue to help them fight for their rights. We do not provide shelter for longtime runaways, but all necessary assistance is provided on a case-by-case basis. If there are compelling reasons to accept such workers at the shelter, we do, because that is exactly why we are here – we have a mandate to protect Filipino workers.

KT: What kind of help do you give to runaway workers?
Narvaez: The action of the embassy depends on the story it tells us. In the affidavit, we ask them to indicate what kind of assistance they want from us – most of the runaway housekeepers want to return to the Philippines, so we help them accordingly. There are some who want to continue working, but with other sponsors, because they have children to feed at home. If they want to work, we will not provide them with shelter. We call their recruiting agency and tell them to transfer the distressed OFW. The agency has its own refuge, so they are entrusted to it. We are forcing the agency to resolve his runaway cases as soon as possible, because in the end, they ended up in Kuwait because they were hired by these agencies. We are not denying them the opportunity to work again because they have families to help around the house.

Extended deadlines
KT: Why are there cases of prolonged delays in resolving the issues of runaway housekeepers? What are the common problems for delays?
Narvaez: Employer non-cooperation is the most common cause of delay in resolving housekeeping issues. First, we coordinate the files with the recruitment agencies who will call the employers to negotiate about their workers. We tell them to hand over the passport and cancel the visa immediately if the worker wants to return home – if they return the passport and agree to the repatriation process, it will be easier for the worker. Indeed, if the employer does not obstruct the repatriation of the worker, the OFW can return home by a regular flight – she can buy tickets and return to the Philippines instantly. The problem is the runaway housekeepers whose employers do not cooperate. They are usually stuck here for long periods of time, but most of the time the police here are very helpful in resolving employer-employee relationships.

KT: Some employers require reimbursement of the cost of hiring the helper (KD 700-KD 1,200). How is this handled?
Narvaez: Employers have a three-month period to try out the housekeeper at work. In the event that a housekeeper cannot perform the work, the employer can easily refer the housekeeper to the agency. The employer can get the money from them, or the replacement of the assistant is allowed. The employer can also wait until a new employer hires them – then the new employer pays the amount to the old employer. This is how it works. But changing employers is not our job – it’s the agency’s job. We are just waiting for the report. Employer-employee transactions are done at the local recruiting agency – from wages to claims. Our role is to make sure everything is done legally.

Rental cost
KT: What is the cost of hiring a Filipino domestic helper? How much does the government receive from the recruiting agency?
Narvaez: For many years we had a rule that did not force our domestic help to spend even a dime to find a job. Thus, the cost of hiring a domestic helper is passed on to employers. I have heard that the cost is between 600 KD and 1000 KD and more, but on the amount POEA / OWWA only gets 3.25 KD from the recruiting agency here in Kuwait. This is the fee for the contract verification, and this is what we (the government) get from the agency here in Kuwait. Back home, we only charge a treatment fee, maybe a little more than KD 5. There are other fees, like for example the medical test, but the amount paid goes to private companies and not to the government. It is not for us to intervene when it comes to the cost of hiring Filipinos – our concern is the welfare of workers once they are hired. As far as I know, the amount they charge includes the cost of the plane ticket and some other requirements of the Kuwait embassy in Manila.

KT: What do you require from the agencies so that workers are protected?
Narvaez: We want them to do their job properly. Their responsibility is to monitor and ensure that our workers are placed in good hands. So the agency’s work doesn’t stop when they find a job for a worker – it’s an ongoing responsibility. The obligation is not limited to the three-month trial period – it extends as long as the worker is under contract with the employer. Even if the workers renew their contracts, their well-being remains in the hands of the agency. The good thing in Kuwait is that the agencies have their own organization here – Fil-Aseak. Thanks to this organization, we can easily communicate and coordinate with them within minutes in an emergency.

Rules of the refuge
KT: What are the rules for runaway housekeepers to follow once they are accommodated at the shelter?
Narvaez: We set the time for everything – there is an hour to wake up and fall asleep. There are volunteers among the fleeing housekeepers to help us with the little chores in the shelter, from cleaning to the kitchen. We also set timetables for visitors and we regulate the use of cell phones. We allow them to use the official telephone (for a maximum of 10 minutes) to reassure their families about their location and the progress of their case.

KT: What about the food? Are they able to eat properly?
Narvaez: They eat here three times a day – we have an average of 150-300 runaway workers, and we feed them and provide them with the necessary hygiene kits, soap, shampoo and detergent (for washing clothes). Just on food, in the first quarter we spent $ 13,000. So we spend a lot. Sometimes Filipino organizations in Kuwait also help us by providing food through feeding programs and activities, which lifts their spirits.

KT: When a worker is hired and enters Kuwait, should he go directly to his employer?
Narvaez: No. We demand that their local agency bring workers here to the Philippine Embassy. We run a Post Arrival Orientation Seminar (PAOS) ​​to make sure they get a good introduction to Kuwaiti culture and standards. We also provide them with an emergency contact number. PAOS is run daily and is a one hour program for newly hired workers. The impact of PAOS is really positive and helps a lot of our kababayans. We launched PAOS in 2014 and we are getting better feedback.

The most difficult challenges
KT: What are the most difficult challenges faced by runaway housekeepers?
Narvaez: The main and common problem is how to recover their unpaid wages. While employers have agreed to pay 110 KD to our Pinoy workers, many are suffering due to unpaid or delayed wages. If the employer refuses to cooperate, we shift the burden to the agencies, then they negotiate with the employers. They are forced to follow our orders because our government is very strict in renewing their licenses. If a recruiting agency has a number of runaway housekeepers (at the shelter), we either temporarily suspend their dealings with us, or recommend canceling their licenses.

We are partners in solving runaway problems. Most of the time we also involve the recruitment agency in Manila. If the problem concerns a ticket for example, we ask them to provide the plane ticket. If the maid agency no longer exists, the OWWA / POE will take over, as it is automatically a member of the OWWA, and will receive financial support from the government. But plane tickets are not a problem for runaway housekeepers as we can get them through various sources.

KT: There are cases of housekeepers on the run here in the shelter that have taken months or even years to resolve. Are there programs offered by the shelter to keep them productive?
Narvaez: Yes, at the shelter we have many volunteers who share their skills with runaway housekeepers such as crafts, baking, cooking, hairdressing, nail art, etc. We have these programs here at the Embassy. Although they are not regular, we have at least one program per month. We also have spiritual activities – for Catholics we have Mass, for Evangelicals we have Bible study and various other services for their spiritual needs. While awaiting their repatriation, we enroll them in the OWWA / POEA “Help Well” program. While in Manila, they can benefit from various training programs and even financial loans to set up businesses for their reintegration into society.

By Ben Garcia


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