FOLLOWING the recall of six Philippine Embassy officials on Wednesday, eight more Philippine ambassadors from the Middle East were ordered to come home to be part of an investigation into the reported sexual abuses committed against distressed female overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
Raul Hernandez, Foreign Affairs spokesman, on Thursday said the envoys will act as consultants to the investigation being undertaken by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on the so-called “sex-for-tickets” scheme, allegedly perpetrated by some erring embassy officials.
“We need to have our ambassadors participate in the fact-finding initiatives that the (DFA] has started,” he said in a press briefing.
Those asked to come home are the envoys to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon. Hernandez said their assistance in the investigation will enable the department to thoroughly address the issues.
On Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario recalled Charge d’Affaires Nestor Padalhan of Syria, Ambassador Olivia Palala of Jordan and Charge d’Affaires Raul Dado of Kuwait, as well as the three officials accused of sexual harassment and prostitution.
Besides the formation of a fact-finding team, the DFA further widened its search for complainants by setting up hotlines in order to encourage the victims to come forward.
“For tips, complaints and information on alleged sex abuses by embassy staff and officers,” the DFA said the public can call 0928-8363756 starting Friday or send an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Shared information will be treated in confidence and those individuals giving the information will be fully protected, Hernandez said.
Also on Thursday, ranking leaders of Congress pressed for the filing of criminal charges against those who will be found to have sexually exploited distressed OFWs.
Senator Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, Chairman of the Committee on Labor, Employment and Human Resources Development and also the Congressional Oversight Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs, threatened to propose a P1 budget for the Foreign Affairs and Labor departments if they failed to render justice to the victims.
For his part, Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello said he will quit his post if no complaints are filed against the erring officials.
“If we do not get criminal prosecution procedures started against these individuals in particular who are running sex rings, I will resign from Congress in protest at the inaction of our government and its inability to bring the criminals within its ranks to account,” Bello, who earlier accused at least three embassy officials of sexually-abusing and “selling” Filipinas abroad, said.
The two lawmakers said the two agencies must act fast to investigate and put an end to the reported abuses committed by their own people.
Estarada stressed that if found guilty, the erring officials should be expelled and outrightly prosecuted for criminal and trafficking offenses.
“Gaya marahil ng mga nakarinig ng istoryang ito, ako ay nanggagalaiti sa galit nang aking malaman na ang ilang opisyal ng ating embahada at POLO [Philippine Overseas Labor Offices] ay nakuha pang pagkakitaan ang kalunos-lunos na sinapit ng ating mga kababayang OFW [Like many others, I am enraged by the thought that some officials of our embassy and POLO even managed to profit from the sad plight of our OFWs],” Estrada said.
“Sila na tinatakbuhan ng mga OFW at inaasahang magtatanggol sa kanilang karapatan at kapakanan ang siya palang magsasamantala sa kanila [They should serve as our OFWs’ first line of defense but they turned out to be the ones exploiting them],” he added.
At the same time, he threatened to slash the budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to P1 if they would fail to render justice to the abused workers OFWs.
He maintained that officials found guilty of the heinous offense must be immediately put behind bars in order for them to serve as a warning to others.
Acting Labor Attaché Mario Antonio, one of the three officials named by Bello, vehemently denied that he operated a “prostitution ring.”
Antonio said he served as welfare officer with sincerity and dedication and that he was never a subject of any complaint, especially with regard to the illicit “flesh trade”.
In a press conference organized by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), Antonio said he is willing to participate in any investigation.
“Humaharap po ako sa inyo upang pabulaanan at itanggi ang mga paratang na ipinupukol sa aking pagkatao [I am here to refute and deny allegations hurled against me],” he said.
Antonio said he was surprised when he heard the news about him operating a “prostitution ring” in Jordan when he arrived in Manila on June 12 after finishing his “tour of duty.”
“Ako ay naglilingkod ng tapat bilang welfare officer sa limang overseas posts sa nakaraang tatlumpong taong serbisyo sa OWWA,” said Antonio as he read his prepared statement.
In his recent posting, Antonio was detailed as acting Labor Attaché of the POLO in Jordan.
Antonio likewise expressed readiness to face the on-going investigation but stressed that he will only answer questions related to the allegations in the “proper venue and proper time.”
“I am submitting myself to full investigation. Hinihingi ko rin na huwag ninyo akong kaagad husgahan at hintayin na lamang natin ang resulta at kahihinatnan ng imbestigasyon. Sana ay irespeto niyo naman ang aking karapatan (I ask everyone not to prejudge me and just wait for the result of the investigation. I hope you respect my right,” he further stressed.
Antonio said because of his “dedication to fight for Filipino workers overseas,” there “could be others who are not happy” with what he has been doing.
“So far, there are 75 Filipinos who are sheltered by POLO. According to RA [Republic Act] 10222, they should be given help and if necessary, help them to return in our country. But we have to follow the law of the Jordan government in giving help to our fellowmen,” Antonio said.
He said there are around 28,000 Filipinos in Jordan, 90 percent of whom work as domestic workers.
Many of these workers were illegally recruited or trafficked and did not follow the proper process of Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).
“Despite them being undocumented, the POLO has still given them protected custody and gave them shelter when needed,” Antonio said.
For her part, OWWA Administrator Carmelita Dimzon said the institution and its employees are being affected by the allegations against some embassy officials.
“The institutions are being attacked and our employees are being affected by this. Masama ang loob nila dahil may mga ganoong akusasyon [They feel bad because there is such kind of allegation],” she added.
She refused to relieve Antonio amid the investigation saying that this should be decided by the investigating team.
But Bello found Antonio’s denial absurd and said that the latter should stop lying through his teeth.
Bello earlier accused Antonio one of the “predators” who make distressed OFWs work as prostitutes for $1,000 or P43,000 per night, based on reports by “ unimpeachable sources” at the DFA and DOLE.
The other two officials were identified as a certain “Mr. Kim” of the Philippine Embassy in Damascus, Syria who was said to be having sexual relationships with distressed OFWs there and Blas Marquez, a local hire of the POLO in Kuwait who is running the Filipino Workers Resource Center as a prostitution ring.
“He [Antonio] is implying that I am a tool of the illegal recruiters. His allegation is a total lie. This pimp, Mr. Antonio, better shut up and stop making false allegations in order to protect himself,” Bello said in an interview after his meeting with Acting Labor Secretary Rosalinda Chato at the House of Representatives.
“The DFA and DOLE officials who came to me about this cannot stomach his [Antonio] kind anymore because these few bad eggs are giving their agencies a bad name. I trust these officials [who informed me of the abuses]who really serve the Filipino people,” he added.
Chato gave assurances that there will be no whitewash in DOLE’s probe on its erring officials.
“We are expecting a report after two weeks. Rest assured we will not cover up anything. In fact, the process is ongoing so that the other one will also be brought here so that he can face the music,” she said.
Chato revealed that DOLE is keen on expanding its investigation on alleged sexual abuses in various Philippine embassies and shelters for distressed OFWs.
She added that DOLE does not treat its disgraced officials with kid gloves, as it has removed, recalled and penalized such people in the past.
“We’re not sleeping on the job. Definitely, we are not condoning any misbehavior in the post. We are here to extend protection to the OFWs who have problems in the embassies or with our POLO officials, make sure that these officials are not jeopardizing the interests of the OFWs,” Chato said.