BY MOBIN PANDIT & AZMAT HAROON
DOHA: Pilipina domestics have been hot favourites of Qatari households for decades. There have occasionally been talks of exploitation of these hapless workers — like their counterparts from other countries — in Qatari as well as expatriate homes, but there have also been reports of how many of them were pampered by their employers and that some of them had even become an integral part of the families they came to serve.
The special liking Qatari families have (or, should we say, had?) for Filipina helpers can be largely attributed to a mix of factors: they are educated and trained in household chores, are hardworking and, above all, have fair skin.
Also, unlike most of their South Asian counterparts, a vast majority of Filipina household workers can speak English which is an additional qualification as Qatari children left in their care can have an early exposure to the language.
Filipina maids are disciplined workers and while they insist on a day off in a week like workers from the organized sector, and might even refuse to put in excessively extra hours as most of their Asian counterparts do, their efficiency and dedication are their saviors.
Due to rising unemployment and low remunerations at home, there have been cases of many Filipina graduates having landed in Qatari homes as maids. There are hardly any such examples in the case of job-hunting women from any other developing or under-developed society in the world.
But, sadly, this long-standing bonhomie between Qatari employers and Filipina domestic helpers seems to be not only coming to an end but giving way to increasing bitterness, thanks to lingering dispute between the Philippines government and the GCC countries over minimum wages.
Although Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the largest employers of Filipina maids, Qatar, too, has a fairly large presence of these workers.
It all started a few years ago when, due to rising costs worldwide, Manila decided to up the minimum wages for Filipina domestics to $400 from $250.
“The government of the Philippines pegged the minimum wages for its maids in 2007,” says the country’s ambassador in Doha, Crescente Relacion. “And it is only now that the government is asking countries to comply with the rule (decision),” Relacion told this newspaper on Thursday.
Relacion had no explanation why Manila’s decision was kept in a limbo for so long, but he insisted that the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) was now asking Qatar, and other countries as well, to “strictly” implement the minimum wage rule.
In Qatar, there was no official response even as local manpower agencies kept crying hoarse in the media over rising costs of hiring Filipina maids and over the Philippine embassy’s ‘uncooperative’ attitude.
The flashpoint came when some representatives of the local manpower business at the Qatar Chamber, the representative body of the private sector, “inked a deal” with an umbrella organization of Filipino recruiting agencies here recently, agreeing in principle to raise the minimum wages of Filipina maids to $400.
What followed was a public outcry. Citizens were quick to launch a campaign on the social media networks calling for a blanket boycott of Filipina maids.
“Why should we pay QR1,500 ($400) to a maid when everything from food to shelter is provided for by the employer-family,” was the gist of comments posted on a local social networking site.
“No Filipina maids in Qatari homes from December 2012 onwards,” declared another commentator.
“A boycott campaign has already begun in Saudi Arabia so we must follow suit,” said one commentator. Another said that raising the minimum wages for Filipinas would force open the floodgates of demand for a similar increment from maids of other nationalities.
“Give me a substitute and I will repatriate all Filipina maids,” announced an angry commentator. “The Indians are ready to work for $250 a month,” he added
“Would these women get that much wage in their own country?” wondered another commentator.
What is interesting is that although Filipina household helpers should, if at all, demand higher wages only after their present job contracts lapse, there have been cases where some domestics are believed to be insisting that they be given the raise right away or they would leave.
“My Filipina maid demanded QR1,500, more than double the sum (QR730) I am paying her. When I volunteered to raise it to QR800, she decided to quit…I am now hiring a Sri Lankan domestic,” said a citizen in a comment posted on the social networking site.
After the hue and cry in the Qatari community, the government eventually broke its silence and said it had not approved any new minimum wage policy set by Manila.
When told about the boycott campaign, Relacion said as a matter of fact: “Qatar is a free market, so people should find domestic workers from other countries.”
He added: Nobody is forcing anyone to keep Filipina maids. They (people) have the choice.”
This is, however, easier said than having to bear its consequences, say critics. The GCC is a big market for Filipina maids, and with yawning joblessness at home they are the breadwinners of their families and provide the much-needed foreign exchange to their resource-scarce country.
The Philippines, incidentally, has the highest wages for workers in the third-world countries of Asia. “It is impossible for anyone to make ends meet with $250 a month…Minimum wages are increasing all over the world,” he maintains.
Sources in the Qatari community say they fear the new minimum wage policy announced by Manila would do immense harm as Filipina maids drawing much less than QR1,500 in might begin to escape from their sponsors to look for greener pastures.
Already, the number of runaway workers is on the rise posing threats to social stability and security in the country, and the minimum wage episode is sure to aggravate the problem.
It is not that Filipina maids haven’t been fleeing their sponsors before the minimum wage was announced. Known to be good at social networking within their community through mobile phones, there have been cases of some runaway Filipinas taking shelter with compatriots and aiding illegal rackets that supply part-time cleaners to expatriate homes.
And, depending on an expatriate family’s income and work load, such illegal free-lancer cleaners are said to be charging anywhere between QR25 and QR40 an hour, and some of them are believed to be making as much as QR7,000 to QR8,000 a month.
What is to the advantage of a Filipina maid, or Filipino workers in general, however, is that their country’s embassy is always at their beck and call and sides with them solidly in their disputes with sponsors.
This is unlike South Asian nations whose low-income workers literally hate the diplomatic missions of their countries due to the latter’s indifference and bureaucratic ways.
Some Filipina maids this newspaper spoke to tell a different story — one of alleged exploitation, toil and tragedy. It was apparent from their talk that most Filipina maids live in constant fear of the lady of the house and work in poor conditions.
They allege they are closely monitored and use mobile phones sparingly and on the sly. Most of them said they ran the risk of their mobile handsets being snatched away by ‘madam’ if they were seen talking.
“I am not even allowed to call my friends and family back home,” said a Filipina domestic, not even giving her first name for fear of being reprimanded by her sponsor.
A Filipina domestic who works as a nanny in an Arab household for QR750 a month said she was even afraid to contact her country’s embassy as that would offend her employers.
“I have been trying to go back home but my sponsor has been demanding QR7,000 in exchange for my passport,” she claimed.
Another Filipina maid said she barely managed to sleep for three to four hours a day as she had to look after small children. “I cannot go out on my own and I don’t even get food on time,” she added.
Currently, there is no law in Qatar to protect domestic workers and given that they work within the four walls of a home where they could be vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, it is within the right of these hapless lot to ask for better wages, if not better living and working conditions, say analysts.