Grace Princesa, the Philippines Ambassador to the UAE Image Credit: Ahmed Kutty/Gulf News

“We want to go beyond labour relations,” Grace Princesa, the Philippine Ambassador to the UAE, tells GN Focus at the embassy in Abu Dhabi.

The Filipina envoy, stationed in the UAE since 2009, highlights the fact that the relations between the UAE and the Philippines have traditionally revolved around the continual influx of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) migrating to the Emirates for employment opportunities unavailable at home.

According to official Philippines embassy data released this year, there are currently 525,530 OFWs living in the UAE. It’s the second-largest Filipino diaspora in the world, after Saudi Arabia.

The ambassador adds, however, that there could be up to another 600 undocumented Filipinos living and working in the UAE. Anti-trafficking and repatriation are areas the two countries have continuously confronted together.

Undocumented OFWs who arrive in the UAE on tourist visas and subsequently find work have been repatriated by the dozens in recent years by collaborative UAE-Philippines efforts.

Discussing how joint efforts to control the undocumented workers have evolved in recent years, Princesa says,“It’s manageable. I’m hoping the UAE government will help me integrate them into society. The UAE’s very open and has been very receptive. It has a good reputation for protecting human rights, so why don’t we do something to really make this place a model.”

Of the registered OFWs in the UAE, 60 per cent are classified as professionals, 25 per cent semi-skilled and the remaining 15 per cent are categorised as unskilled workers.

There are also ongoing concerns about distressed OFWs in the UAE, the ambassador adds. “Let’s say there are 100,000 Filipina household service workers here. Those who are distressed [comprise] about 5-10 per cent.

“It’s a worrying 10 per cent. But bilaterally, we’re looking at win-win solutions so we can minimise focus on these areas as well as our own resources.”

According to a UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs report issued at the end of May, “For the UAE, respect for labour rights is a moral, cultural and economic imperative. The UAE considers it a priority to work on an ongoing basis to improve their conditions.”

The reform of the UAE’s labour laws saw more than 1,000 employers accused of maltreating their workers and referred to prosecutors in the last year.

At the tail end of last year, Philippine Labour Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz told reporters, after a meeting with distressed Filipina workers at the Philippine labour office in Dubai, “The UAE government, through the Minister of Labour, Saqr Ghobash, has assured us that they are willing to sit down with us to discuss the affairs of the Filipino household service workers here in the UAE.

“A verbal note has been given regarding this, but they said they will prepare a more detailed agreement, patterned after our bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia by November this year.”

The agreement with Saudi Arabia, signed in May last year, enforced the minimum wage of $400 (about Dh1,469) for a housemaid, a standard contract verified by the Philippine government, weekly days off, rest periods, paid annual leave and humane treatment.

Despite the numerous challenges the two countries face, relations are constantly buoyed by close-knit humanitarian efforts, increasing volumes of trade and progressive tourism markets. When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November, leaving more than 6,000 dead, UAE-based Filipinos, whose family members were stuck in the devastation of the storm’s aftermath were overwhelmed by the support extended to their motherland by the UAE.

His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, ordered a $10 million relief package for the South East Asian country, while the Bayanihan Council, an umbrella organisation of Filipino organisations in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain contributed significantly to relief efforts .

Many charity events were organised in Dubai too including the walk in Safa Park where hundreds of Filipinos gathered and that the ambassador attended to extend her support.