Protesters hold placards at the Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong on July 27 to criticize the Philippine government's inadequate response to the evacuation, protection and assistance of overseas Filipino workers in Lebanon. (Photo courtesy of Reuters)
WITH the evacuation of Filipinos from war-torn Lebanon well into its second week, it is emerging that once again Filipino women are becoming the main victims. News reports tell of some cruel Lebanese employers refusing to let their Filipino employees go home because their contracts are not finished yet.
Another report I read detailed how enraged Lebanese “madams” regularly storm a church in Beirut, which is serving as an evacuation center, looking for their runaway maids who are trying to go back to the Philippines to avoid the indiscriminate bombing of the Israelis.
Philippine Embassy officials are forced to lie to these women, saying that the person they are looking for is not inside just so the crazed madams will go away. Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon Al Francis Bichara admitted such actions took place, saying “we have to intervene or hide the Filipino worker. Anybody who wants to go home, we’ll take them.”
Some of the employers have resorted to filing bogus reports of theft with the police in their desperate attempts to catch their maids who have absconded to the safety of the evacuation center. The Philippine Embassy has now been forced to hire police to protect the center from enraged “amos”.
I myself received an email from a judge in Tarlac City asking me to help get his 36 year-old sister Leila L. Torres evacuated from Beirut. Leila had been working in Lebanon as a florist, but when the war started her boss closed his flower shop and stopped paying her salary. He’s insisting she must stay in Beirut because her contract has not finished yet.
But any sane person would say that is a ridiculous demand since Leila’s employer is not paying her and certainly cannot guarantee her safety from being killed by one of Israel’s so-called precision-guided bombs that seem to be falling off-target of late.
I called her brother Florante Torres in the Philippines on Thursday and he told me that she was okay and that the Philippine Embassy had called her boss. The boss agreed to allow Leila and her Filipino co-worker Precy Perez to be evacuated if the situation worsens.
“I advised my sister to do something, to go by herself to the evacuation center, but she told me she couldn’t as it is 30 minutes away by car,” said Florante. “They still have food and electricity so it’s okay for the time being, but the boss should be willing to put aside my sister’s contract.” Leila’s contract expires in September.
One maid in Beirut was so desperate to go home that she jumped from the second floor window of her employer’s home after they refused to let her return to the Philippines. She is now in hospital having fractured some bones and injuring her spine.
To avoid such tragedies in the future, one wishes that Philippine officials would negotiate a clause that could be inserted in the contracts of all domestic helpers in the Middle East and Asia that says if an armed conflict breaks out the maid has the right to terminate her contract and leave the country as soon as possible. It would be a sort of automatic Monopoly-like get out of jail and collect $200 card.
Most of the returnees need monetary assistance as their Lebanese employers have used the excuse of the war to send them home with money still owed them in unpaid salaries. Unfortunately, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) has refused to give any money to the Lebanon returnees, with OWWA head Marianito Roque denying reports that returnees were getting 5,000 pesos each. “That’s not true. We will help them all throughout the repatriation process, and even after but not with handouts,” he said.
Handouts? No one is asking for government handouts, but 5,000 pesos for each returnee to be able to land on their feet in this emergency situation is the least the government can do, especially OWWA which forces every OFW to pay a mandatory $25 annual membership fee in order to be helped by that agency. Where has all of that money gone? I don’t believe it has all been spent on the airfares of the returnees. There needs to be much greater accountability and transparency of where all the fees collected from OFWs end up. The money certainly does not end up at Philippine missions abroad, where skeletal staff are expected to take care of the problems of hundreds of thousands of Filipino workers, while constantly complaining about a lack of resources.
Philippine officials are now doing a good job of evacuating Filipinos from the war zone, but they were initially very slow in doing so and dragged their feet for too many days before snapping into action.
One has to wonder why the Philippine government was so slow in responding to this clear danger in Lebanon, and also ask why the government does not seem to have contingency plans in place to evacuate the more that 1 million Filipinos working in the Middle East in the event of a catastrophe such as the war in Lebanon.
Agreements should be in place with Philippine and foreign airlines and ship owners to have them use their air and sea craft to help evacuate Filipinos in case of war. The Philippine government had to negotiate discounts of 50 percent off regular airfares in order to charter planes to fly evacuees home from Damascus in Syria. This slowed down the whole evacuation by several days.
In addition, evacuation points should be established in advance, so that the government does not panic at the last moment, running around trying to find shelter for Filipinos leaving a country. In this conflict, the Philippine government had to negotiate with churches in Lebanon and Syria to provide shelter to the evacuees. But what about in Saudi Arabia where there are nearly a million OFWs? What are the government’s evacuation plans? It would be nice to know.
+Update: Ambassador Bichara has now been forced to apologize to the DFA for airing his criticism of the slow dispersal of funds to evacuate OFWs from Lebanon. I think he did the right thing to "shock" the Philippine government into action.