Migrant workers endure hardships abroad for chance at better life.
Summary: Four months ago, Eric and his wife Karen left the Philippines for Lebanon to provide for a better life for their family. While driving buses in the Philippines, Eric became certified as an electrician to improve his chances of finding employment abroad. "The work is hard but I need money for our children," Eric said.
BEIRUT: Four months ago, Eric and his wife Karen left the Philippines for Lebanon to provide for a better life for their family. While driving buses in the Philippines, Eric became certified as an electrician to improve his chances of finding employment abroad. "The work is hard but I need money for our children," Eric said. "We made a sacrifice, left our son in the Philippines because of poverty. There, sometimes one month's salary was not enough to pay the rent."
According to a recent United Nations study entitled "Sending Money Home," Asia receives almost $114 billion in remittances annually. The study also found that last year, overseas Filipino workers sent home $14.6 billion.
Filipinos working overseas represent nearly 23 percent of the country's labor force. Foreign remittances currently account for about 13 percent of the Philippines' total gross domestic product, according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).
The POEA estimates there are over 30,000 Filipino workers in Lebanon. Last year, the POEA reported a deployment of over 8,000 new workers. "We are giving money to our government," Eric added.
On November 18, the Department of Labor and Employment announced the processing of Filipino migrant workers would resume after Manila imposed a ban last year because of the war with Israel.
Under the new rules, migrant Filipino workers will only be sent to Lebanon if paid a minimum of $400 per month. Currently the set rate is $200 for Filipinos, $100 for Africans and $150 per month for Sri Lankan workers - but many recive as much 50 percent less.
Sri Lanka extends fewer protections to its migrant workers than other Asian countries, such as the Philippines.
The Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment estimates there are over 86,000 Sri Lankan women employed as domestic workers in Lebanon, where they constitute the largest population of migrant workers.
Bernadette, a 32-year-old single mother from Sri Lanka, needed a means to provide for her daughter. The option of working overseas sounded very promising. For almost three years she has been working in Lebanon as a domestic worker. Daily, Bernadette wakes at 6 a.m. to endure 18 hours of grueling labor.
"There are jobs in Sri Lanka but they pay very little money and I needed money to take care of my daughter," Bernadette said. "$150 is almost 20,000 Sri Lankan rupees. That's very little. I have land but now I want to build my house."
Sri Lanka received $3.4 billion in remittances last year from migrant workers abroad. The Sri Lankan central bank reported 7.4 percent growth in the economy in 2006, largely driven by money from overseas that went into technology-related services, construction of properties and the garment industry.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 131-page report on expatriate workers entitled "Exported and Exposed," criticizing several Gulf states, Lebanon as well as Sri Lanka for failing to protect Sri Lankan migrant women workers.
"For its part, the Sri Lankan government welcomes the money these women send home, but does little to protect them from exploitative bosses or labor agents," said Jennifer Turner, a researcher in the Women's Rights division at HRW.
Lebanese employers pay up to $3,000 to a recruitment agency. The agency replaces the contract signed in the workers' country with a new contract which is in Arabic, a language foreign to the migrant worker.
"Now we are working to create a unified contract that is clear for both employee and employer, and signed by both parties, one in Arabic and the other in the language of the worker," migration lawyer Roland Tawk said. "We have these agencies that take money and this money is what creates the problem of poor working and living conditions."
According to Tawk, who has represented domestic workers for over 10 years, Lebanese labor laws are outdated and generally do not cover migrant workers because they are considered servants, not employees.
Instead, they are covered under the "Kafala" or sponsorship system, which says workers must be legally sponsored by a Lebanese employer or kafil for the duration of their contracts. The employer typically confiscates the worker's passport and other identity papers, which are returned at the end of the contract.
Sri Lankan recruitment agencies prepare the women for travel abroad. In "Maid in Lebanon," by documentary filmmaker Carol Mansour, 16-year-old Sureika is getting ready to leave Sri Lanka for Lebanon. Her village has no electricity.
"In 12 days they have to learn Arabic and English, electrical appliances like the vacuum cleaner and the washing machine and Lebanese foods," says Mansour. "They come here and they are traumatized. I think it's a huge problem."
HRW says that although the Sri Lankan government has created a regulatory system for recruitment agencies there are still important gaps and regulations that need to be enforced.
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