Tackling issues of 
labour together

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Tackling issues of 
labour together

Olivia Olarte-Uherr speaks with Philippine Ambassador Grace Relucio-Princesa about her life-long mission to help her compatriots abroad and how labour 
issues like model contract, legal recruitment channels and dispute settlement 
mechanism are being addressed by her team and UAE officials

By (DIPLOMATICALLY?SPEAKING)

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Published: Mon 22 Jul 2013, 11:59 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:41 PM

Tell me about yourself, career and overseas postings before coming to the UAE as ambassador?

KT photo by Nezar Balout

I passed the Foreign Service Officers exam in 1986 after the EDSA people power revolution (people’s revolt against the dictatorship of then President Ferdinand Marcos). That pivotal moment in our nation’s history inspired me to give my best in my career as a representative of the country. My first posting was in Chicago, from 1990-1994. Then, I chose to be cross-posted to Abu Dhabi in June 1994-1996 as Chargé d’Affaires a.i. and as the first Philippine lady consul in the UAE. From 1996-1998, I was Chargé d’Affaires and First Secretary and Consul of the Philippine Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. After a brief stint at the home office, I volunteered for assignment in Iraq in 2001. It was one of my most exciting assignments since I had the privilege of evacuating overseas Filipinos before the outbreak of the US-Iraq War in 2003. Also, I was the Minister and Consul General of the Philippine Mission to the United Nations from 2004-2007 in Geneva, Switzerland.

How long is your term of office as ambassador? What do you endeavour to see change during this period?

InshaALLAH, I can stay for six years, which is the maximum tour of duty of Philippine diplomats abroad. I came here on October 24, 2009 and will be due to leave in 2015. It has been my life-long mission to help my fellow Filipinos working and living abroad. Based on my observations, a lot of them are not prepared to go back home or reintegrate financially and emotionally, when their contracts are up. So, it is my goal to teach financial literacy to our overseas Filipinos while I am here.

Second, is to increase commercial ties with the UAE and promote Filipino products. Since the UAE is the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), I wanted to promote knowledge and sales of abaca or Manila hemp — the strongest natural renewable fibre in the world with 85–90 per cent of the world’s supply coming from the Philippines. This fibre represents the best qualities of the Filipino — strong, resilient and exceptional. Also, more information and sales of the pilinut — a kind of nut only commercially available in the Philippines. Lastly, to promote the Philippines’ dried mangoes, which some say are the best in the world.

This is part of our economic diplomacy approach, one of the pillars of Philippine Foreign Policy actively pursued by our Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario and our President Benigno Aquino III.

What programmes are currently in place to achieve these goals?

Worldwide Initiative for Investment, Savings and Entrepreneurship or the Pinoy WISE Movement was softly launched on January 2011 with the help of the UAE Ministry of Labour through a Training of Trainers for representatives of the five Asian labour origin countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines and Sri Lanka. Officially, it was endorsed by the Philippine Secretary of Agriculture Proceso Alcala in November 2012. After the re-echo of the module to the Filipino community, to date, more than 1,000 Filipinos have been given lessons on how to save and where to invest their savings and family values that affect their capacity to save.

For abaca, my residence is also called the House of Abaca since it features a lot of furniture and decorations made of this indigenous Philippine fibre. I am passionate about abaca and look for ways to actively promote its economic and environmental contribution.

Lastly, during the Filipino food festival UAE-wide in Lulu Hypermarkets, I was informed that perhaps after two months, pilinuts will be on the shelves of this large supermarket chain. Dried mangoes are already being sold here.

How are the Philippines-UAE relations?

After 32 years, it remains solid and strong. It is our privilege to have been given the opportunity to be part of the phenomenal growth of this country with its visionary leadership. I have been blessed to have met the founding father and first President of this nation, the late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan during my first posting here. I see the same vision and dynamism from the present President, His Highness Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum as well as the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, General Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

How has your office helped in strengthening this relationship, especially on labour issues?

We have tried to keep a regular, sustainable dialogue between us to discuss issues that need clarification. The Philippines has strong bilateral labour relations with the UAE as evidenced by the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the UAE and the Republic of the Philippines in the field of manpower on April 9, 2007 in Manila.

This MoU expired in 2012 and both governments decided to upgrade it into a Memorandum of Agreement to make it more binding between the two parties.

Negotiations are in progress for this MoA which aims to promote existing healthy relations by means of bilateral labour service cooperation, recognising the benefits to be derived from such cooperation. The MoA covers cooperation on labour, employment and manpower development, specifically on conditions for the recruitment and employment of Filipino workers in the UAE, such as adoption of standard or model contracts, mechanisms for dispute settlement, transfer of remittances and protection pursuant to the labour laws and regulations in force in both countries.

Furthermore, the Philippines and the UAE are key actors of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, a non-binding, voluntary bilateral and regional labour cooperation and partnership among countries of origin and countries of destination. The Philippines is at present the Chair (until mid-2014) of this Dialogue which aims to improve the administration of the temporary contract employment cycle and maximise its benefits to contract workers, employers and the economies of countries of origin and destination.

Contract switching is a big issue among your nationals coming to work here. Is this still an ongoing concern? What have you/your government done to curb this?

As earlier cited, we are both discussing issues that need urgent attention from both our sides to avoid irritants in our otherwise excellent relations.

Contract switching is still an ongoing concern for Filipino workers in the UAE and we are trying to address this through the adoption of the standard employment contract as proposed in the PH-UAE MoA.

How many Filipinos are currently working in the UAE and in which industries? How important is their contribution in the country’s labour market?

There is an estimated 500,000-600,000 Filipinos in the UAE, and they are ranked third or fourth largest of the expatriate workers. They are estimated to be 60 per cent professionals, 25 per cent semi-skilled and 15 per cent unskilled, including the Household Service Workers. Their services are very important and very well appreciated by the host government as told to me by UAE officials.

Among the Middle East countries, where does the UAE rank in terms of the most favoured destination among Filipino migrant workers? Why?

UAE is the second preferred destination of Filipino labour migrants all over the world, next to Saudi Arabia. The labour market is open to expatriate workers and compensation packages are quite attractive especially for highly skilled workers and professionals.

What is the percentage of Filipinos coming to the UAE to work every year? Is this increasing?

There is, at the least, a 10 per cent annual increase in the deployment of new hires to the UAE. In 2012, there were around 82,085 new hires deployed to the UAE compared to 73,019 in 2011.

On tourism, how does the Philippines fare compared to its Asian neighbours as destination of choice by UAE residents and the region?

We are still catching up with other Asian neighbours in terms of being a tourist destination. With the opening of the Philippine Department of Tourism representative office in Dubai and the tourism campaign ‘It’s More Fun in the Philippines,’ we have seen double digit growth in the first quarter of this year. Through sustained and aggressive marketing and sales promotions, we hope to improve the figures. The invitation is also for us Filipinos to revisit our own natural beauty spots.

With 7,101 islands, Philippines has many multi-faceted attractions, activities and destinations that cater to the preference of the tourists from this region and the UAE specifically. The country boasts of world-class shopping, beaches, nature, adventure activities, spa and wellness tourism products and services but what makes the Philippines stand out is the warmth and hospitality of its people who are considered as among the most ebullient individuals in the world. The Filipinos’ warmth makes every trip to the country more unforgettable. English is also widely spoken throughout the country and the good exchange rate of dirham to peso makes the Philippines a value-for money destination.

In January to March this year, there were 3,388 visitors to the Philippines from the UAE, a 15.91 per cent growth compared to the same period last year. Visitor arrivals from the Middle East meanwhile are 16,423, a 22.10 per cent increase from January to March 2012.

When you get time off of your very busy schedule, what do you usually do or where do you go to unwind?

I just stay at home and contemplate to unwind while listening to music. Reading inspirational books on leadership and life is also a past-time. Swimming gives me energy. My weekends are the busiest due to the large Filipino community and their myriad activities. The active diplomatic calendar of the UAE keeps us diplomats on our toes.

I keep a journal and if the muses inspire me, I write poetry. olivia@khaleejtimes.com

Career

> 1986 — Passed the Foreign Service Officers exam

> 1990 to 1994 — First posting in Chicago, US

> June 1994 to 1996 — Posted to Abu Dhabi as Charge D’affaires (the first Philippine lady consul in the UAE)

> 1996 to 1998 — Charge D’affaires, First Secretary and Consul of the Philippine Embassy in Cairo, Egypt

> 2001 — Volunteered to be assigned in Iraq; evacuated overseas Filipinos before the outbreak of the US-Iraq War in 2003

> 2004 to 2007 — Minister and Consul General of the Philippine Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland

> 2009 to present — Took up post in Abu Dhabi as UAE ambassador to the Philippines



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