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What happens when a domestic helper seeks embassy assistance? – Processes done to repatriate Filipino runaway housemaids

Angelita Narvaez, shelter administrator and the Philippines embassy’s assistant labor attache.
Angelita Narvaez, shelter administrator and the Philippines embassy’s assistant labor attache.

KUWAIT: There are about 220,000 Filipinos in Kuwait, based on the official immigration record revealed by Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait Renato Pedro Villa at the 118th Philippines Independence Day celebration last month. The majority of them work as domestic helpers, or about 60 percent of the total. There are many reported cases of abuses in the domestic labor sector committed against Filipina domestic helpers and nationals of other countries that export domestic workers. The embassy of the Philippines runs two shelters for abused workers; one in Hateen, where 150 abused maids are housed, and the other in Faiha, with about 270, as of May 25, 2016.

But what really happens when a housemaid runs away and seeks the embassy’s assistance? Kuwait Times spoke to Angelita Narvaez, shelter administrator and the embassy’s assistant labor attaché.

Standards procedures
Kuwait Times: When a household service worker (HSW) runs away and seeks the embassy’s help, what should she expect? What are the procedures taken?
Narvaez: We have standard operation procedures in the embassy manual with basic guidelines that are followed. You are considered a runaway if you show up at the embassy within 48 hours after escaping from your employer. If you come after a week or so, then we believe there is something wrong on the part of the worker, so we will try to see how we can help. We ask them to sign an affidavit with their story of why they ended up at the embassy.

Those who have been staying somewhere else other than their actual employers for a long period of time are not accepted at the shelter at all, but we will continue to help them fight for their rights. We do not provide long-time runaways shelter, but all assistance needed is given on a case by case basis. If there are compelling reasons to accept such workers at the shelter, we do so, because this is exactly the reason why we are here – we are mandated to protect Filipino workers.

KT: What kind of assistance do you provide to runaway workers?
Narvaez: The action of the embassy depends on the story they tell us. In the affidavit, we ask them to state the kind of assistance they want from us – most runaway housemaids want to go back to the Philippines, so we help them accordingly. There are some who want to continue working, but with other sponsors, because they have kids to feed back home. If they want to work, we will not provide them shelter. We call their recruitment agency and tell them to transfer the OFW in distress. The agency has its own shelter, so they are turned over to it. We oblige the agency to resolve its runaway cases as soon as possible, because at the end of the day, they ended up in Kuwait because they were hired by these agencies. We do not deny them the opportunity to work again, because they have families to help back home.

Extended delays
KT: Why are there cases of extended delays in resolving issues of runaway housemaids? What are the common issues for the delays?
Narvaez: Noncooperation from the part of employer is the most common cause for delay in resolving housemaid issues. At first, we coordinate the cases with the recruitment agencies that 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 process of repatriation, it will be easier for the worker. In fact, if the employer is not a hindrance in the worker’s repatriation, the OFW can go home on a regular flight – she can buy tickets and return to the Philippines instantly. The problem is of runaway housemaids whose employers do not cooperate. They are usually stuck here for extended periods, but most of the time, the police here help us tremendously to resolve employer-employee relations.

KT: Some employers demand returning of the cost of hiring the helper (KD 700-KD 1,200). How is this handled?
Narvaez: Employers are given a three-month period to try the housemaid in the job. In the event that a housemaid cannot perform the job, the employer can easily return the housemaid to the agency. The employer can get the money from them, or a replacement of the helper is permitted. The employer can also wait until a new employer hires her – then the new employer pays the former employer the amount. This is the way things work. But change of employers is not our job – it is the job of the agency. We only wait for the report. Employer-employee transactions are done at the local recruitment agency – from salaries to claims. Our role is to make sure that everything is done legally.

Hiring cost
KT: What is the cost of hiring a Filipina domestic helper? How much does the government get from the recruitment agency?
Narvaez: For many years, we have a rule that does not oblige our domestic helper to spend even a single centavo in getting a job. So the cost of hiring a domestic helper is passed to the employers. I have been hearing the cost is between KD 600 to KD 1,000 plus, but out of the amount, the POEA/OWWA only gets KD 3.25 from the recruitment agency here in Kuwait. This is the fee for the verification of contract, and that’s what we (the government) get from the agency here in Kuwait. Back home, we only charge a processing fee, maybe a bit more than KD 5. There are other charges, like for example the medical test, but the amount paid goes to private companies and not to the government. It’s not our business to intervene when it comes to the cost of hiring Filipinos – our concern is the well-being of the workers once they are hired. As far as I know, the amount which they charge includes the cost for the airline ticket and for some other requirements by the Kuwaiti Embassy in Manila.

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

Shelter rules
KT: What are the rules to be followed by runaway housemaids once they are housed at the shelter?
Narvaez: We fix the time for everything – there is a time to wake up and go to sleep. There are volunteers from among the runaway housemaids to assist us in minor jobs at the shelter, from cleaning to cooking. We also set timings for visitors and we regulate the use of mobile phones. We allow them to use the official phone (for a maximum of 10 minutes) to reassure their families on their whereabouts and the progress of their cases.

KT: What about 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 necessary hygienic kits, soap, shampoo and detergent (for washing clothes). On food alone, during the first quarter, we spent $13,000. So we are spending a lot. Sometimes Filipino organizations in Kuwait also help us by providing food through feeding programs and activities, which boosts their morale.

KT: When a worker is hired and enters Kuwait, should they go straight to their employers?
Narvaez: No. We require that their local agency bring the workers here at the Philippine Embassy. We conduct a post-arrival orientation seminar (PAOS) to make sure that they get a proper introduction to Kuwaiti culture and norms. We also provide them with a contact number in case of emergency. The PAOS is conducted every day, and it’s a one-hour program for the newly-hired workers. The impact of PAOS is really positive and helps a lot of our kababayans. We launched the PAOS in 2014 and we are getting better feedback.

Most difficult challenges
KT: What are the most difficult challenges facing runaway housemaids?
Narvaez: The main and common problem is how to recover their unpaid salaries. While employers have agreed to pay KD 110 to our Pinoy workers, many suffer due to unpaid or delayed salaries. If the employer won’t cooperate, we pass the burden to the agencies, so they negotiate with the employers. They are compelled to follow our orders because our government is very strict in renewing their licenses. If a recruitment agency has a certain number of runaway housemaids (at the shelter), we temporarily suspend their transactions with us, or we recommend canceling their licenses.

We are partners in solving runaway issues. Most of the time, we also involve the recruitment agency back in Manila. If the problem is about a ticket for example, we ask them to provide the air ticket. If the housemaid’s agency does not exist anymore, OWWA/POE will take over, since she is automatically a member of OWWA, and get financial support from the government. But plane tickets are not a problem for the runaway housemaids as we can get them through various sources.

KT: There are cases of runaway housemaids here in the shelter that took months or even years to resolve. Are there any programs offered by the shelter to keep them productive?
Narvaez: Yes, at the shelter we have many volunteers who share their skills with runaway housemaids like handicraft making, baking, cooking, hairstyling, nail art, etc. We have these programs here at the embassy. Although they are not regular, we have at least one program in a month. We also have spiritual activities – for Catholics we have Mass, for Evangelicals we have Bible study, and various other services for their spiritual need. While they are awaiting repatriation, we enroll them in the ‘assist well’ program of the OWWA/POEA. When they are in Manila, they can avail various training programs and even financial loans for them to start businesses for reintegration into the society.

By Ben Garcia

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