DUBAI: Recto Esmeralda, 55, a former HR manager for a hotel in Dubai, took out an Dh80,000 loan in 1999 to pay for the surgery of his friend’s mother. He failed to repay the loan and served four months in jail.
He lost his job and the friend for whom he did the favor disappeared and later died in a car accident in Bahrain. Esmeralda went into hiding for 14 years in Dubai before finally making it home.
Every year, thousands of Filipinos in the UAE like Esmeralda get into legal trouble, related to both finances and employment, and experts say there is only one way to avoid this: know the rules of the host country.
A significant number of the estimated 750,000 documented Filipinos in the UAE are not even aware of the basic tenets of the UAE law, especially those relating to debt and finances, causing them to end up facing lawsuits or even doing jail time.
A 24-year-old Filipina served three years in prison for forging a university degree. She applied for a job at a government agency in Fujairah but verification revealed her diploma was a fake. She was deported after serving her prison term.
Atty. Michael Barney, director at the Commercial Department of Gulf Law in the Middle East, Philippines and United Kingdom, told The Filipino Times the bulk of the estimated 3,500 Filipinos who have attended the seminars and sought free legal aid at the Philippine Embassy and Consulate General’s Office are actually party to various legal cases.
“Based on the almost 3,500 Filipinos in the UAE who have been to our monthly legal aid and law seminars at the Philippine Consulate and Embassy, most of them got into trouble because they are not aware of the laws and customs of the host countries,” said Barney, who is a licensed legal consultant in the UAE.
“For example, issuing a check without sufficient funds will land you in jail in a matter of weeks, unlike in the Philippines where a court case may take several years,” said the Filipino lawyer who also holds Juris Doctor and MBA dual degrees with concentration on International Business and European Union Law from the University of London.
Bouncing check is a common criminal offense among the majority of Filipinos who are in trouble with the law. With the police sharing its database with the immigration authorities, those with cases pending against them can be apprehended even at the airport.
Lenders usually require borrowers to affix their signature on a blank check as a security measure. When the borrower defaults, the check will bounce and criminal charges would ensue. If the signature on the check is proven original and authentic, the case against the borrower is upheld in court. These cases also apply to a borrower’s guarantors.
Debt-related cases are extraordinarily difficult to handle, especially if the lenders, both banks and individuals, have filed criminal or civil cases against the borrowers. Once a civil case has been filed against a delinquent borrower, a travel ban is automatically imposed against the borrower and he or she would be unable to leave the country.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has already issued a warning that the Philippine government is not obliged to bail overseas Filipino workers out of their debts, as its considers them a private matter between the creditor and the debtor.
Know the rules
The other large chunk of legal cases relate to the laws governing employment in the UAE. For those working in the UAE for the first time, legal experts say the basic law is that they must have a work visa to legally stay in the country.
With many trying to get jobs in Dubai via the visit visa route, staying in the UAE without work costs a lot of resources and could taint their immigration if caught.
“Unlike in the Philippines, Filipinos who intend to work in the UAE must secure the necessary work permits and/or visas. Switching jobs may subject them to labor bans for up to a year. They should carefully study the provisions in their employment contract,” said Barney.
“There are two types of employment contracts under the labor code: unlimited and limited. The rules on resignation, termination, end of service entitlement and notice period will depend on which type of contract an employee has. Working for another company (even part-time or with the consent of the visa sponsor) is illegal,” he said.
Barney said the UAE Labor Code has 10 provisions whereby an employer can fire an employee outright. One of these rules relates to honesty or being truthful about your credentials.
Article 120 of the UAE Labor Code states in part that an employee can be dismissed outright “if the employee adopts a false identity or nationality or if he submits forged documents or certificates.”
Under the law, faking your education degrees to secure a job or visa can get you up to 10 years in prison.
A 22-year-old Filipina applied for work at a government-owned hospital. She was deemed medically unfit to take on the job but a Nigerian national working at the Dubai Health Authority tampered with her results electronically after she paid him Dh3,000.
The Filipina was charged with aiding and abetting the Nigerian DHA staff, who was separately charged with soliciting a bribe, gaining illegal access to an electronic database and tampering with data, forging and using a forged electronic document, and unlawfully using four seals belonging to DHA. The case is currently being heard.
In Abu Dhabi, fake educational certificates constituted about 40 percent of all document fraud cases during the first half of 2014. Apart from serving monetary fines and jail time, convicted persons also stand to be deported.
3 Basic Rules
Philippine Labor Attaché Delmer Cruz, also a licensed attorney in the Philippines, said there are at least three rules that Filipinos intending to work in the UAE must learn.
“First, don’t sign a document if you don’t understand it. For example, if it is written in Arabic and you don’t understand what it says, then don’t sign it,” said Cruz, whose office helps Filipinos facing labor-related problems like contract substitution and non-payment of wages, among other things.
Cruz said the second thing Filipinos should understand is that it’s always better to work in the UAE the legal way.
“If you come to the UAE for work, please do it the legal way. Mag-pa-process potayosa POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Administration),” he said.
Third, know your legal rights and your employers’ responsibilities.
Cruz said a lot of Filipinos spend time on various social media networking sites yet don’t find the time to do research about their host country’s labor and immigration rules.
“They have to know their rights and they must use the internet smartly. There are a lot of things to learn. Education is empowerment. Know your duties and responsibilities as a worker. Don’t listen to hearsay or sabi-sabi or kwentong barbero,” he said.
The labor attaché said the labor cases they handle usually involve contract substitution and unpaid wages, which should be dealt with by the Ministry of Labor. The number, which was not specified, is lower compared to previous years, but still significant.
As a rule, Cruz said, a worker with a labor-related grievance should consult first with the Ministry of Labor, which has jurisdiction over the matter.
A reconciliation or mediation meeting will be scheduled for both parties to possibly reach an amicable settlement. If no settlement is reached, the case would then be elevated to the lower court. A judge would then decide the merits of the case.
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