By Simona Sikimic
BEIRUT: Laws protecting the rights of Filipino migrant workers in Lebanon are “on the verge” of being signed, the Philippine ambassador Gilberto Asuque told The Daily Star Wednesday.
The implementation of the pending Memorandum of Understanding with the Labor Ministry would enable the Philippinesto lift the ban on the deployment of migrant workers that has been in place since 2007, Asuque said.
The ongoing government formation, which began with the fall of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government on Jan. 12, is not acting as a major obstacle to ratification of the agreement, according to the ambassador.
“I’m sure that the caretaker Cabinet is acting on pending issues and I am just waiting for the Foreign Ministry to give us the advice on the arrangements,” he said during an interview at the Philippine Embassy in Achrafieh.
“[After two years of negotiations] the text has been agreed and it’s a matter of organizing a schedule for signing it … because we want to put this issue aside and move onto other issues of cooperation.”
The Philippines put the ban in place on concerns about the poor working conditions of and abuses perpetrated against its nationals, who receive little legal protection in Lebanon.
“What we have here are humans, they are not commodities that you can simply transfer from one shelf to another,” said Asuque.
A string of investigations by human rights groups have revealed the alarming frequency of violations – such as non-payment of wages, confiscation of passports and forced confinement within the employer’s home – which are perpetrated against the 200,000-odd foreign domestic workers in Lebanon.
Under Philippine law, workers can only be deployed to countries where their rights are guaranteed, either by domestic laws, or by the enforcement of multilateral conventions, such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families.
As Lebanon lacks both, a bilateral agreement on the protection of the rights of oversees Filipino workers, was sought as the most effective way of improving conditions, said Asuque.
The negotiated memorandum of understanding seeks to balance the competing interests of the worker, the employer and the state and includes “decent work” provisions, as decreed by the International Labor Organization, in addition to legal checks enshrined in Lebanese laws.
“It is a win-win situation for both governments,” said Asuque. “The purpose of the agreement is to emphasize to the Filipinos that come here that they have legal obligations that are enforceable in Lebanon and that if they violate these they will be held viable.
“But the Philippine government is ready to help you by providing you with a lawyer,” he added.
If adopted, the agreement would also create training centers in the Philippines, where domestic workers wishing to work in Lebanon would receive a month of training before starting their contract.
This will “prepare them to accept a different culture so that they are not shocked by the work that they have to do,” said Asuque.
It is also expected to reduce human trafficking, which has increased as demand for domestic help has grown, as recruiters falsely lure women with the promise of work in retail stores or medical facilities.
Although there are no official figures about the number of Filipinos that enter Lebanon annually, around 3,000 to 5,000 are estimated to be here illegally, “just running around taking the risk,” said Asuque.
This represents a small but significant proportion of the total Filipino population of 40,000, most of whom entered the country before the implementation of the ban, he added.
In 2010, 445 vulnerable nationals were repatriated, with a further 100-odd repatriated in January 2011 alone, marking a significant increase on previous years where on average slightly more than 100 nationals were sent back.
The jump has been attributed to increased coordination between Philippine authorities and Lebanese immigration, which has developed as part of the memorandum negotiations.
However, the problem is far from solved and the embassy presently harbors “close to a hundred Filipinos who run away from their employers,” said Asuque. “Most of these arrived last year or a few months ago but cannot face the kind of treatment and working conditions they have here.”