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 attaché 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.
Approaching ‘indentured labor’ conditions
“You’re safe now, they can’t touch you here,” a domestic worker who signed up as a volunteer says to Mary Jane Garcia, 26, a newly arrived escapee who had walked out into the highway in the middle of the night and hitchhiked her way to the center.
Earlier, at the receiving area, Garcia’s employers had caught up with her and — in front of everyone — accused her of stealing. They ordered her to go back home with them, but Garcia was adamant. Denying their allegations, she stood her ground and shot back at her employers angrily, managing to insert some Arabic phrases: “You make me work from six a.m. to four a.m. You also make me work at the factory. Even when I was sick, you made me work.”
“Did I ever hit you?” the male employer turns to Mary Cleofe Libunga, 35, who worked with Garcia in the same household. Libunga just looks at him accusingly, but says nothing.
Enter Chona Lamberte, 26, from Bohol, crying inconsolably. She tells the volunteer at the reception that her employers forbade her to leave and they still don’t know she had ran away. She’s scared, she says. They might come and get her.
These scenes are typical, says Rina Velasco, 26, a volunteer in charge of filing the evacuees’ travel papers that are being issued in lieu of missing passports. While there are also tearful goodbyes from those who had been lucky enough to be with kind employers, she says, “over 70 percent of Lebanese employers treat their employees badly.” Another employee at the embassy, a Lebanese national, thinks the figure is closer to 99 percent.
“Rare is an OFW with a positive experience in Lebanon,” says Kanlungan’s Dabu. Indeed, prohibited from even saying “hello” to fellow Filipinas in public places, made to sleep on the kitchen floor, and placed on call to do their masters’ bidding 24 hours a day, the conditions of these workers approach that of “indentured labor, even white slavery,” says UP Professor Walden Bello, who interviewed dozens of OFWs in Beirut as part of an international delegation.
With this kind of relationships they have with their employers, the parting scenes at the evacuation center have been anything but friendly. At one point, says Velasco, the bodyguard of a general drew a gun and threatened to shoot a Filipina worker if she refused to go back with them.
Protection of rights prove tricky
At least these days the Philippine government seems ready to help the workers as much as it can. Prior to the war, it didn’t look that way to some people here. According to Dabu, way before Israel began dropping bombs on Lebanon, Filipina workers had been knocking on the embassy’s door for help. But instead of giving them shelter, embassy officials took the workers back to their employers, she says. Abandoned and with nowhere else to go, some of them would eventually decide to jump off buildings, recounts Dabu.
In September 2004, Kanlungan helped some abused workers file cases against the then Filipino labor attaché in Lebanon. The cases are still with the Ombudsman, while the attaché has since been transferred to Rome. Current labor attaché Manalo, who assumed her post here in June last year, maintains though that the embassy never had any abused worker returned to their employer.
In any case, most of those who ran away from their employers eventually began going to churches or to NGOs for refuge, says Dabu. The name of Sister Amelia Torres, a Filipino nun who has been with the Daughters of Charity here in Lebanon for the past 18 years, is on everybody’s lips and is known to most as the person to go when the going gets tough.
Tina Naccache, a Lebanese social worker who has been working on migrant workers’ issues for years, relates how their organizations once proposed enforcing a common contract that would have laid down the minimum working conditions and compensation that should be guaranteed to workers.
But the agencies opposed this and insisted instead that that they be included as a party to the contract. This would have given them more power over workers, Naccache explains. What shocked Naccache, however, was when the representative of the Philippine embassy endorsed the agencies’ position.
The present labor attaché says that they see the inclusion of the agencies in the contract as a “temporary” arrangement. “While the Lebanese government is still very weak on protecting migrant workers,” Manalo says, “we have to hold the agencies responsible for the workers.”
Migrants’ organizations are skeptical of this arrangement since agencies — having had already collected the $2,000 placement fee from the employers — simply do not have the financial incentive to be responsible. In fact, they point out, agencies have often taken the side of employers in disputes with workers. They would also be the first to force runaway workers to return to their employers; otherwise these employers would demand that the fees they paid be returned.
Fortunately, says Naccache, the proposal has been blocked by the Lebanese labor minister who happens to belong to the Hezbollah, the armed political party that is the target of Israel’s ire. Unlike the other parties, she says, the Hezbollah has no ties to employment agencies and their members often don’t employ domestic workers in their household. Another social worker who refused to be named says that for all of his disagreements with the Hezbollah, it is the only Islamic group he respects because of their position toward migrants.
Manalo, however, points out that the Lebanese labor ministry couldn’t even compel Lebanese employers to compensate workers for unpaid services, much less make them accountable for abuses they commit. This is because Lebanese labor laws do not cover migrant workers. Saying she has been “saddened” by the plight of OFWs in Lebanon, Manalo has recommended temporarily suspending workers to the country while they “cleanse” the recruitment and placement industry of agencies found to have violated contracts or condoned abuses against workers.
Meanwhile, stories of abuse are bound to continue to pile up for as long as Filipinas are forced into a relationship in which their employers wield ultimate power over them. These power relations are especially tilted against Filipinas in the Middle East, where women are often seen as inferior and where citizens from third-world countries are often viewed with contempt. Here, points out Irynn Abaño of the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), Filipina domestic helpers are vulnerable to overlapping forms of gender, race, and class discrimination.
Having paid for the domestic helpers’ services in advance, employers often see these workers as nothing more than commodities to be used as they please. Filipinas, for their part, voluntarily enter into these relationships because they have few more liberating options at home. Having pursued economic and social policies that reduced or eliminated job opportunities at home — but at the same time benefiting from the dollar remittances that workers abroad infuse to the local economy — the Philippine government encourages these relationships and has, since the 1970s, deliberately promoted the export of labor. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, points out Abaño, has explicitly announced its target of deploying one million Filipino workers abroad annually. Workers running away from their employers do nothing to reach this target.
In an effort to curb abuses against Filipinos abroad, the CMA and other groups have been pushing the government to demand that OFW-receiving countries sign an international covenant that guarantees the rights of migrant workers. But even Abaño concedes that this “covenant” has no enforcement mechanisms and prescribes no penalties. They have, however, also demanded that Manila pursue bilateral agreements with host-countries.
Yet as Abaño herself recognizes, the Philippine government really has no bargaining power because host governments know fully well that it is desperate for jobs. Hence, it will do everything and accept anything that will provide employment opportunities for the locally unemployed and that will earn dollars to pay for the countries’ imports. Offered overseas employment opportunities for its citizens, the Philippine government will not walk away, even if these leave Filipinos vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Millions of its citizens are also willing to take the risk. With few employment opportunities waiting for them, many of those waiting here for the buses to take them home to the Philippines confess they are not sure what future awaits them back home. Some are resigned to come back to Lebanon when the fighting stops. “You think you’ll be away long? You’ll be back soon!” one Filipino taunts them half-jokingly.
The long-term solution to reduce and prevent abuses is to extricate Filipinas from the relations of powerlessness that they find themselves in. “Ultimately,” says Abaño, “the real solution to the problem of abused OFWs is for the government to pursue full employment policies and to work for genuine development at home so that working abroad will just be one option.”
Until then, Israel’s missile launchers may fall silent, but Filipina workers may still find that jumping off buildings in lands far away from home may be the only way to escape their troubled lives.
Herbert Docena is a researcher with Focus on the Global South, an international research and advocacy organization.