ONE of the three female migrant workers who claimed they were victimized by Filipino embassy officials while awaiting repatriation in the Middle East described on Wednesday how Antonio Villafuerte, the assistant labor attachè in Riyadh, raped her in his office.
A black veil covered the face of the worker, identified only as “Michelle,” when she appeared at a press conference in Taguig City. Her two companions, “Annaliza,” 38, and “Angel,” 28, were also cloaked to protect their identities.
The 39-year-old Michelle said she had gone to see Villafuerte at the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Riyadh on May 19 to follow up her case.
“He asked me to bring his bag to the office upstairs. He asked me to open the aircon and when he followed, that’s the time that he molested me,” Michelle said.
To back up her claim, Michelle said she will present a witness who also stayed at the Bahay Kalinga in Riyadh when the incident happened.
Annaliza and Angel also said they were also victims of Villafuerte.
The three migrant workers said they are ready to confront the labor official once he returns to Manila. Villafuerte had been recalled by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to be investigated.
He is expected in Manila on Thursday night.
“We are ready to face him and we will not back down,” said Michelle in Filipino.
Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said the preliminary investigation of Villafuerte will begin as soon as possible.
Baldoz said the fact-finding team looking into the case can start its probe because three complaints have been filed against the POLO official. She said Villafuerte will be asked to submit his counter-affidavit so that the team “can already begin assessing” the case.
“Once he arrives from Riyadh, they can go ahead with it. At least we can get the ball rolling already,” she said.
Baldoz said sitting in the panel will be representatives from the DOLE employees association, legal service and the chief of the human resource department.
If probable cause is established, Villafuerte will face criminal and administrative charges. He may also be suspended or terminated from the service, according to DOLE Undersecretary Rebecca Chato.
Senator-elect Cynthia Villar on Wednesday handed financial and livelihood assistance to the three workers.
The assistance, which came from the Villar Foundation, will enable the three women to go back to their provinces and start a small business.
“This is in line with our livelihood program. They can put up a sari-sari store with groceries. It is up to them to do their best for their small business to grow,” Villar said.
She vowed to file a resolution urging the Senate to launch its own inquiry into the incident.
She noted that she has more reasons to push for the creation of the Department of Overseas Filipino Workers (DOFW) because of the ordeal suffered by the women workers.
“We should ensure that our OFWs are always protected since they are our modern heroes, and we draw a lifeline from the remittances they send to their families in the country,” she said.
Sen. Manny Villar, who originally proposed the establishment of the OFW department, said an agency devoted solely for OFWs would ensure that Filipino migrant workers are safe from abuse, exploitation by cruel employers and abusive officials and during armed conflicts.
Villar said that although the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) are involved in OFW matters, these agencies have other mandates that also need attention.
A department dedicated to Filipino migrant workers would simplify and harmonize efforts to look after them when there is a crisis and secure their welfare and rights, he said.
There are at least 10 million OFWs, and Villar said their number is large enough to justify the establishment of a dedicated department for them.
The establishment of a department for OFWs, however, could raise serious issues as well as possible conflict with other existing government agencies like the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).
One of the core functions of the POEA besides issuing licenses to overseas recruitment and manning companies is to protect migrant workers and provide them repatriation assistance.
The OWWA, an attached agency of the DOLE, on the other hand, is the lead agency tasked to protect and promote the welfare and well-being of OFWs and their dependents.
The DOLE investigating team will fly to Kuwait on Saturday to look for more leads. The team is headed by Leah Fortuna of the Office of the Secretary, with Ophelia Almenario from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), and Rosemarie Duquez from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) as members.
From Kuwait, they will proceed to Riyadh and their last stop will be Jordan where they will stay until July 13.
“My instruction is keep the investigating team away from any media exposure at this time. They have to concentrate on their task which is gathering information and evidences, both documentary and testimonial,” Baldoz said.
She added that the administrative aspect of the case could be over after a month.
She also revealed that they are considering deploying more female welfare officers in Filipino Workers Resource Centers (FWRC) in the Middle East to attend to distressed OFWs and serve as “action officers” in cases filed by workers.
“We have to prioritize Riyadh and the different POLOs in the Middle East. This is one of the immediate actions we believe is necessary even without the conclusion of this investigation,” Baldoz said.
But she clarified that the female officers will augment labor offices in Middle East and will not replace the present POLO officials.
Vice President Jejomar Binay said administrative and criminal cases will be filed in the Philippines against labor and embassy staff if the sexual abuse or maltreatment of OFWs happened inside the Philippine embassy compound.
Binay said the embassy is considered an extension of Philippine territory. If the offense was committed outside the embassy grounds, then the host country has jurisdiction and the Philippine government is duty-bound to extend legal help to the complainants.