27 AUGUST 2006

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Issue No. 2.2005
OVERSEAS FILIPINOS SPECIAL

Treated like modern-day slaves, Filipina domestic workers in Lebanon have jumped off buildings to escape from Israeli bombs and abusive Lebanese employers.

by HERBERT DOCENA

BEIRUT — Miramar Flores stood on the ledge of her master's second-floor balcony. As she tried to make up her mind — whether to stay on under the Israeli bombardment or to flee — it may well have occurred to her that it was a choice between death and death.

"If you don't die from jumping, you die from nervousness," recalls Flores, a 25-year-old domestic helper from Bacolod City. She chose to jump. She says that when she hit the ground, she thought it was the end. The pain in her legs assured her it wasn't.

Still, she ran and ran until she somehow found her way to the Philippine embassy in central Beirut. Flores says she had been locked up by her employers. "This was my last chance to escape," she says.

Flores is one of around 20 Filipinas in Lebanon so far who have taken a leap — literally. Like Jezebel Guillermo, a 31-year-old domestic helper from Isabela, Flores is grateful she survived her fall. But at least one other worker has not been as lucky; in another case, it's not clear whether the worker jumped or was deliberately pushed to her death. Five others are feared to have gone mad.

Flores and Guillermo's decision to jump came largely from fear of being war casualties. Yet according to nongovernment organizations, Filipino workers in Lebanon have been jumping off buildings even before the recent war broke out.

In 2004, six Filipinos working in Lebanese households died under "mysterious" circumstances after falling from buildings — "mysterious" because while their employers claim the workers committed suicide, their fellow workers say some of them may have been thrown off the buildings by their employers. Apart from the Filipinos, 47 Sri Lankan workers are also reported to have committed suicides in 1997 alone.

Helen Dabu, who is with the Kanlungan Center Foundation, an organization that has dealt directly with victims of abuse from Lebanon and elsewhere, says the women jump off buildings out of despair. In 2000 alone, the last year a database was compiled by the Lebanese Pastoral Committee for Afro-Asian Migrant Workers, there were over 400 reported cases of physical and sexual abuse against migrant workers, half of the victims Filipinas.

Filipino workers suffer from abuse all over the world. But while it is difficult to accurately say whether Filipinos are better off or worse off in Lebanon than in other OFW destinations, Dabu says that the Middle East (including Lebanon) is the region from where they receive the most number of complaints about abusive employers. Such cases outnumber those reported in Hong Kong, Singapore, or Malaysia where the complaints involve more contract violations rather than rape or maltreatment. Dabu's assessment is supported by Philippine labor attachι to Lebanon Ma. Glenda Manalo, who says this is also the view of many other diplomats working in the region.

TENTH MOST POPULAR DESTINATION
Lebanon is the tenth top destination of Filipino workers abroad, although Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon Francis Bichara himself admits that they can't actually say for sure how many Filipinos are in the country, since many are smuggled in. Research done by Kanlungan, however, indicates that the number could be as high as 50,000. Filipino workers have been arriving in Lebanon since 1978 but it was only in the last eight years, after the end of the civil war, that Filipinos have been coming here in droves. Last year alone, over 14,000 are known to have entered the country. According to Manalo, up to 99 percent of those who come here work as domestic helpers, almost all of them women.

This is why it was mostly women who wound up in a Roman Catholic school-turned-processing center for Filipinos evacuating from the war. Since Israel's aggression started on July 12, over 4,000 Filipino migrant workers — majority of them women — have passed through the center, waiting for the next bus to Damascus, where they would then take the plane home.

Most of their employers had refused to let them go. As the women workers tell it, their respective bosses said they would be released only if they paid back the $2,000 their bosses had given to recruitment agencies for each of them. The women also surrendered their passports to their employers upon arrival in Lebanon, so many of those who have managed to make it to the center do not have any travel documents with them.

Ironically, the war — and the unprecedented public attention that came with it — has given workers an opening not just to flee from the bombs but also to free themselves from their abusive masters. One of them is Jonalyn Malibago, 26, from Quirino province, whose face is still swollen as she recounts her tale.

Working from five in the morning to midnight every day — without a single day off - for the last six months, Malibago says her employers had been treating her so badly that she had been wanting to return home for months. But she couldn't because she didn't have enough money: for the first three months, her salary went directly to the employment agency that got her here. Promised $200 a month when she was still in Manila, she found out — as most other Filipinas do when they arrive in Lebanon — that she was to get only $150 instead.

As the war dragged on, Malibago found the reason and the courage to tell her employers she was leaving. Her employers replied by beating her up, rendering her unconscious. Malibago had to be taken to the hospital afterward. Yet she tried asking again, threatening to jump off their building if they refused.

The employers seemed to relent and got her into the car. Then the entire family — husband, wife, two teenage sons — also entered the vehicle, but instead of driving her to the Philippine embassy or the church, they beat her up again so bad her arms and legs are still deep blue and violet.

Her masters then threw her out of the car and direct into a garbage dump. Barely conscious, Malibago somehow picked herself up and walk away, eventually ending up at the center.

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