Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Vol. VI, No. 29      Aug. 27 - Sept. 2, 2006      Quezon City, Philippines








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Running from Hell
The harrowing story of a Filipino migrant worker in war-torn Lebanon

Two months of maltreatment forced Mariz Yabes, a 20-year-old mother of two from Isabela, to decide to escape from her employer. The war in Lebanon gave her a chance to flee.

Contributed to Bulatlat

ANGUISHED: An OFW from Lebanon cries
as she talks to relatives on a mobile phone
upon her arrival at the Ninoy Aquino Internatiopnal Airport, Aug. 8

Mariz Yabes, a 20-year-old-mother of two from Isabela, northern Philippines was still shivering and in near tears as she told me the ordeal she went through as a domestic in Lebanon. In her short two-month stay there, her employer refused to feed her, treated her badly, cursed and threatened her often. She went to her employment agency, but instead of helping her, they locked her up inside a bathroom for six days without food and water.

Mariz sought the help of groups Migrante International and Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1st Movement) in filing complaints of maltreatment, violation of recruitment and breach of contract against her former Lebanese employer and employment agencies in Lebanon and Manila.

On Aug. 2, she arrived from Lebanon along with the largest batch of 447 Filipinos to be repatriated from the war-stricken country. Setting aside her province-bred shyness, Mariz said she will do everything she can to help expose the real situation of Filipino domestics in that war-torn Middle East country and will find ways to help them get rescued from the hellish employment conditions they are forced into by the phenomenon of labor migration.

Still worried about her sister and friend Richelle who are still in Lebanon waiting to be rescued even as she said she will pursue her legal complaints.

Taking advantage of desperate OFWs

At first, All Skills Manpower, the local employment agency that sent Mariz to Lebanon, showed her different employment contracts. During the orientation, she was promised a US$200 monthly salary with day-off and other benefits. She signed a contract stipulated with such conditions.

She thought she was hoodwinked when just before her departure, the agency made her sign a different contract, with a US$150 monthly salary, a day-off privilege based on the discretion of the employer and a four-month salary deduction. "Hindi daw kami makakalabas ng bansa kung hindi namin pirmahan yung kontrata" (We were told we couldn’t leave without signing the contract). As she had no other choice, Mariz signed the contract.

Commenting on her case, lawyer Remigio Saladero of the PRO-LABOR Legal Assistance Center said many recruitment and employment agencies are violating the Labor Code and are actually operating as fly-by night businesses preying on first-time OFWs.

Inhumane working conditions

Mariz arrived in Lebanon one June 5 and her life became a living hell since then.

She wasn’t fed by her employer during her first three days there. At one point, she said, she even went through digging the household garbage to look for left-over food. “Hindi ako direktang binibigyan ng pagkain ng amo ko. Bawal din akong magluto”  (They gave me nothing to eat. I was also not allowed to cook.

A day after she arrived at her employer's house, she was asked to go to the agency for a medical exam. There, the Lebanese contacts of All Skills in Beirut confiscated her mobile phone along with the only copy of her employment contract. ''Gusto pa nilang kunin ang picture ng pamilya ko pero 'di ko binigay, sabi ko wala akong dala'' (They even wanted to confiscate my family’s photos, but I refused, saying I didn’t bring any).

On Mariz’s fourth day of work, already starved and weakened, her employer cursed and poked her because she was too weak to work and could barely lift a flat iron. ''Nung umiyak ako, lalong nagalit ang amo ko kaya isinoli ako sa agency'' (When I cried, my employer got mad and returned me to the agency).

Little did she know, her employer twisted the story causing her more trouble from the agency. ''Minura ako nung may-ari ng agency. Tinakot pa ako na ikukulong at hindi hahanapan ng bagong amo.'' (The agency owner cursed me and threatened to have me jailed. He also said that he would not look for another employer for me)

Hopeless with her condition, Mariz returned to her employer with a heavy heart.

Even without regular sustenance, Mariz was forced to work almost 18 hours a day. ''Hindi nila ako pinapayagan magpahinga o matulog kapag gising pa sila.  Kahit sobrang pagod at gutom na ako, pinapagalitan ako ng amo ko kung huminto ako sa pagta trabaho." (They don't allow me to rest or sleep while they are still awake. Even if I'm dead tired and starving, my employer would scold me if I stop doing the house chores.)

Learning about her condition, other Filipina house helps working in the same building as her took turns in secretly giving her food. They became her hope for survival. But they made it a point to be very discreet as Filipino domestics were barred by their employers from talking and getting acquainted with each other.

“Noong nagsimula ang gyera hindi ko pa naisip na umuwi. Pero hindi ko na makaya ang trato sa akin ng amo ko” (At the start of the war, I never thought of going home. But I could no longer stand the treatment I was getting from my employer). On July 20, as the military attacks escalated, the abuses inflicted on Mariz by her employer also worsened. She was slapped by her employer as she was caught eating without their permission. She fought back and argued with her employer.

She was immediately sent back to the agency. By the time she reached the office she was already black and blue. But instead of helping her, they locked her up inside a dim bathroom in an abandoned building. ''Mas grabe pa sa bartolina yung pinagkulungan sa akin. Hindi ako binigyan ng pagkain o tubig.'' (The bathroom was worse than a jail. They gave me no food or water.) All her belongings were confiscated. She only had 25 Lebanese pounds (equivalent to US$0.01731) in her pocket, which was given to her by a fellow domestic.

Emboldened by the war

After six days of confinement, she managed to escape with the help of a Bangladeshi domestic. With the help of a fellow Filipina freelancer, she arrived at the evacuation center in St. Francis Church in Hamra on July 26.

Mariz said that many Filipino contract workers immediately gathered by the Philippine Embassy after President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered the evacuation of OFWs are runaways who fled their abusive employers. “Karamihan ng mga naunang naiuwi dito sa Pilipinas nanggaling sa mga kulungan sa Lebanon. Mga Pinoy na tumakas sa mga amo nila.”  (Many of first arrivals in the Philippines had escaped from detention by their employers.)

After her escape, Mariz met other Filipinas who share her plight, with some even enduring more horrible experiences in the hands of their employers. She served as volunteer at the evacuation center hoping she would be repatriated as soon as possible. She interviewed many Filipinas at the evacuation center. Out of 100 persons she interviewed, only five said they had good employers.

One of those she talked to, Rosario, of Bicol, told her that for one year and six months, she received no salary from her employer nor seen any Lebanese pound in her entire stay there.  Another by the name of May, from Cagayan Valley said she was constantly molested by her male employer but did not seek help for fear that the agency will again deduct the placement fee from her salary.

Asked about her plans, Mariz said she will pursue her complaints against All Skills Employment Agency to make sure that it will be closed. “Gusto ko lang mapasara yung agency. Kung may pagkakataon lang akong makakuha ng trabaho dito na sapat ang sahod, hindi-hinding na ulit ako magpapa-alila sa ibang bansa.”  (I just want the agency to be shut down. If I can only get a well-paying job here, I won’t work as a slave in another country.)

Mariz related that the war’s outbreak helped embolden many Filipino domestics who were being maltreated by their employers. The ongoing war in Lebanon is not the main problem of many Filipino OFWs in Lebanon, she said, but the oppressive working conditions of domestics and the lack of help they get from the Philippine government.

Corrupting funds for OFWs

Like other OFWs, Mariz criticized the lack of support from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and the Philippine Embassy in Lebanon. She believes that the government corrupted the funds of OFWs. MIGRANTE International attested to this and said that OFWs are having hard time availing of loans and subsidies.

Now government officials are having a row over the missing OWWA funds supposedly allocated for the benefit of OFWs and the needs for emergency repatriation.

Migrant workers organizations are now demanding OWWA to produce the Emergency Repatriation Fund (ERF), a special seed fund of Php100 million ($1,946,282 at an exchange rate of $1=P51.38) collected from contributions of OFWs (US$25 per OFWs). This fund is allotted to evacuate overseas workers during emergency situations such as war, epidemic, disaster and natural or man-made calamities. For the past years, Congress failed to allocate or source out the government’s counterpart share in the ERF fund amounting to Php100 million per year. 

The OWWA, POEA and Malacańang officials are bickering and pointing at each other on who is to blame for the missing OWWA funds. Involved officials refused to attend hearings called by the Senate. Labor Secretary Arturo Brion, OWWA Director Marianito Roque, and Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs Esteban Conejos were absent during the scheduled hearing. The Senate was forced to temporarily suspend the hearings.  

MIGRANTE International officials said that they have evidences proving that OFW funds were illegally invested or loaned to private companies including Landoil Resources, partially owned by House Speaker Jose de Venecia, Greater Manila Corp. in the amount of P200 million, and other businesses. Home Guarantee Corporation (HGC), the company that managed the Smokey Mountain Project, still has a balance of PhP1.07 billion ($20.82 million) from the PhP664 million ($12,923,316) loaned by OWWA in 1999. He also said that OFW funds were even loaned to the Philippine National Police (PNP) Commission.

“OFWs have long before accused the Arroyo administration of illegal disbursements of OFW trust funds held by OWWA. Around PhP530 million ($10,315,297) OWWA Medicare Funds was transferred to Philhealth. Reacting to the Commission on Audit’s (COA) statement that ‘OWWA funds are intact and readily available,’” Migrante officials said that COA is covering up OWWA’s misuse of funds. Bulatlat



© 2006 Bulatlat  Alipato Media Center

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