There are 679,819 Filipinos in the United Arab Emirates, of which 450,000 live in Dubai, where they make up 21.3 percent of the population. Of these 1,711 are permanent residents; 658,348 are temporary workers and 19,760 are undocumented. In 2007 Filipinos in the UAE sent more than US$500 million in remittances back to the Philippines.
Overseas Filipino workers are employed in the architectural, construction, cargo shipping, design, engineering, energy, information technology, marketing, medical, real estate, retail, telecommunications and tourism sectors or as domestic helpers. The Philippine Department of Labor and Employment has two Philippine Overseas Labor Offices in the UAE, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The global financial crisis of 2008-2009 took a toll on the working Filipino population in the UAE, and in December 2008 alone, 3,000 Filipino workers lost their jobs. The overall population shrank by 20 percent at the end of 2008 compared with 2007. The Philippine Embassy asked laid-off Filipinos to register, because of the possibility of job openings in Qatar. However, the decline could also be attributed to new visa and passport requirements that the government of the UAE instituted midway through 2008 affecting up to 20,000 Filipinos. Those with expired visas were stranded on the Iranian island of Kish, and at Al Buraimi, Oman near the Oman/UAE border.
The Trucial States of the Persian Gulf coast granted the United Kingdom control of their defense and foreign affairs in 19th century treaties. In 1971, six of these states–Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Ash Shariqah, Dubayy (Dubai) and Umm al Qaywayn–merged to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They were joined in 1972 by Ra’s al Khaymah. The UAE has a total population of 8,264,070. Arabic is the official language, while Persian, English, Hindi and Urdu are also widely spoken. Islam is the official religion.
The UAE’s per capita GDP is on a par with those of leading West European nations. Its high oil revenues and its moderate foreign policy stance have allowed the UAE to play a vital role in the affairs of the region. For more than three decades, oil and global finance drove the UAE’s economy. However, in 2008-09, the confluence of falling oil prices, collapsing real estate prices and the international banking crisis hit the UAE especially hard.
The UAE has essentially avoided the “Arab Spring” unrest seen elsewhere in the Middle East. However, in March 2011, political activists and intellectuals signed a petition, widely circulated on the Internet, calling for greater public participation in government. To prevent unrest, the government announced a multiyear, $1.6-billion infrastructure investment plan for the poorer northern Emirates.
The UAE has an open economy with a high per capita income and a sizable annual trade surplus. Successful efforts at economic diversification have reduced the portion of GDP based on oil and gas output to 25 percent. Since the discovery of oil in the UAE more than 30 years ago, the country has undergone a profound transformation from an impoverished region of small desert principalities to a modern state with a high standard of living.
The government has increased spending on job creation and infrastructure expansion and is opening up utilities to greater private sector involvement. In April 2004, the UAE signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with Washington and in November 2004 agreed to undertake negotiations toward a Free Trade Agreement with the US; however, those talks have not moved forward. The country’s Free Trade Zones–offering 100 percent foreign ownership and zero taxes–are helping to attract foreign investors.
The global financial crisis, tight international credit and deflated asset prices constricted the economy in 2009. UAE authorities tried to blunt the crisis by increasing spending and boosting liquidity in the banking sector. The crisis hit Dubai hardest, as it was heavily exposed to depressed real estate prices. Dubai lacked sufficient cash to meet its debt obligations, prompting global concern about its solvency. The UAE Central Bank and Abu Dhabi-based banks bought the largest shares. In December 2009 Dubai received an additional $10 billion loan from the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Dependence on oil, a large expatriate workforce, and growing inflation pressures are significant long-term challenges. The UAE’’s strategic plan for the next few years focuses on diversification and creating more opportunities for nationals through improved education and increased private sector employment.
Nearly 70 percent of the UAE government’s workforce is made up of Emirati nationals, while foreigners dominate the private sector. The regular working time is eight hours a day, six days a week and can be increased to nine hours a day in commercial establishments, hotels, cafeterias and security services. Ten hours a day over a five-day week are common, with no overtime pay and, in some cases, no time off. Labor regulations do not cover government employees, domestic servants and agricultural workers. Such groups are at times obliged to work longer than mandatory hours, and domestic servants are often victims of abuse.
Outdoor work between 12:30 and 3:00 p.m. is prohibited during the hot summer months, when the temperature exceeds 112 degrees Fahrenheit. This policy is aimed at protecting workers in the sizeable contracting and construction sectors from heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Sanctions for non-compliance by employers include considerable financial penalties, applied on a per worker basis.
Problems Faced By OFWs
To combat abusive labor practices the UAE has regulations giving workers in all labor sectors the right to transfer employer sponsorship. The UAE has created bank guarantees that earmark funds for worker compensation. It is illegal for employers to withhold workers’ passports. New licenses are being denied foreign labor brokers and recruiters who cannot demonstrate full compliance with UAE laws.
Although illegal, it is still a common practice for employers to retain employees’ passports for the duration of the employment contract to prevent expatriate employees from changing jobs and going back immediately to their home countries on termination of their employment contract. Such practice makes it easy for sponsors/ employers to file absconding cases. Consequently, passport retrieval is very difficult for OFWs who run away from their employers because the latter usually demand payment for their deployment expenses as a precondition for the release.
Employers do not allow household workers to use mobile phones, so they must contend with their inability to communicate with their foreign recruitment agencies as well as their families in the Philippines. Thus, while running away from employers is considered a crime in the UAE, for most OFWs it is the only way their plight can be heard and their complaints against erring employers acted upon.
Contract substitution is still a common practice of companies and agencies. OFWs, upon arrival, are often made to sign a new contract in English or Arabic, which pays them less than had originally been agreed. Delayed payment of wages, premature termination of services and excessive working hours are also some of the challenges faced by OFWs.
Salary discrimination is common with the highest paid jobs going to Emiratis, a process supported by the Emiratisation program, forcing companies by law to hire a percentage of UAE citizens. The second highest salaries go to people of Western origins. People from developed regions in Asia such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea, also get comparatively higher salaries than workers from South Asia, East Asia and Africa, including the Philippines. They are offered and receive considerably less in various sectors of the UAE economy.
Information redacted from the following sources: