Lebanon blasted on Filipino airwaves

Calling their Lebanese employers 'demons' and accusing them of human rights abuses, three Filipino women who worked as maids in Lebanon have gone on television in their home country to warn their fellow citizens against traveling to Lebanon.
Lebanese Maronite Christian leader Suleiman Franjieh with his Filipino domestic worker. ©Samer Mohdad/Arab Images Foundation

BEIRUT, January 16, 2009 (MENASSAT) – Three Filipino women took to the airwaves January 10, urging others not to travel to Lebanon for work, a local daily in the Philipines reported.
The three women were featured on Philippine Vice President Noli de Castro’s radio program in Manilla one day after they arrived to the Philippines. They were among 85 Filipino workers that sought shelter at the Filipino embassy in Beirut one week earlier.

“To all Filipinos planning to go to Lebanon, please don't go through with it because the people there are demons. Many are raped, some even go crazy," Marilyn Valencia said. 

Valencia left the Philippines, unaware of the ban her government had issued on its workers going to Lebanon since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.   

"I thought good jobs were awaiting us there," she said during the interview.

But she wasn’t paid regularly, she was shouted at, and rarely fed.

After being passed on from one employer to the next, and then falling ill for nearly two weeks, she escaped to her embassy for shelter. 

Fleeing Lebanon

The other women interviewed, Merlita Benito and Lizelle Diozon, both said their employers physically abused them on a regular basis. With no end in site to the abuse, they were also forced to seek refuge at the embassy.

Twenty-five-year old Diozon said her Lebanese employer hit her after the family she was working for accused her of stealing money.

" I told them even if they hand me over to the police, they'll know that I didn't steal anything. What they did was they hit me," she said.

And despite her recruiter’s promise to a $250 monthly salary, she was never paid.

Since workers have been banned from seeking jobs in Lebanon, those who continue to leave go through illegal recruiters.

Valencia brought them to attention on the show, shaming them for deceiving aspiring workers.

"Be bothered by the things you do to your fellow Filipinos," she said. "They are pitiful. They are working to pay you. You take the applicants' money even though you have no idea what awaits them wherever you deploy them abroad."

More than 200,000 migrant domestic workers, primarily from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Ethiopia, work in Lebanese households.

According to Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos Jr, who also appeared on the radio show, that includes about 30,000 Filipinos, making them the third-largest migrant worker community in Lebanon.

Yet, they don’t have legal status in the country and therefore many of them are subject to exploitation and abuse by employers and agencies, NGOs have said

Lebanon far behind in migrant's rights 

“Lebanon lags far behind almost every country in the region when it comes to protecting migrant women’s rights,” said Nisha Varia, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s women’s division.

If Lebanese employers, placement agencies, and the Lebanese authorities could ensure fair contracts, timely payment of wages, and a guarantee of one-day off, conditions would improve.

But as of now, none of these are guaranteed for migrant workers.

Lebanese placement agencies, who are supposed to be responsible for the workers’ rights mistreat them from the moment they arrive, confiscating their passports and sometimes all of their belongings.  Some withhold their salaries for months and cases of physical and verbal abuse have also been reported.

According to representatives at the Ethiopian Consulate, when women come to them running from the abuse of their employees, the agencies claim they cannot do anything.

Women are therefore left with few options, taking refuge at their embassy, going to the safe house at the Beirut-based NGO Caritas, going to make-shift safe houses  (all of which are not guaranteed), or sleeping in the streets.

‘We are not an embassy, we are a funeral parlor.’

“Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week,” said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In the last two years, since January 2007, at least 95 migrant domestic workers have died in Lebanon.

However, in an interview with the Ethiopian consulate, representatives estimated that 150 Ethiopian women have died in a little more than a year.

The deaths are either classified as suicides or caused by workers falling from their buildings in an attempt to escape.

According to interviews HRW conducted with embassy officials and friends of domestic workers who committed suicide, they suggest that forced confinement, excessive work demands, employer abuse, and financial pressures are the main factors causing these women to suicide or risking their lives to escape.
“Don’t call this an embassy. We have become a funeral parlor. People die. Natural deaths, accidents, suicide. When they try to run away, accidents happen,” a former ambassador said to HRW.

Lebanese police generally investigate death cases but they are largely ineffective, as they don’t always look into mistreatment on behalf of the employee, or if they do they accept the employer’s testimony first-hand after asking a few general questions.

Also in cases where the migrant worker survives a fall, she is not provided with a translator when speaking with the police, not do they ask about the motives for her action.