It’s not just foreign employers who are abusing overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). Even Philippine Embassy officials are allegedly involved in the sexual exploitation of their countrymen—so says Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello.
Bello, who chairs the House committee on overseas workers’ affairs, on Tuesday said three “predators” from Philippine overseas offices had been the subject of complaints from their coworkers.
Bello named two of the three officials during a press conference, and gave the nickname of the third.
He said two of the officials—one a ranking member of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (Polo) in Amman, Jordan, and the other a local hire of Polo in Kuwait—were allegedly involved in running sex operations in Amman, Jordan, and Kuwait that use Filipino women staying at OFW shelters.
The third official, who he said was a member of the augmentation team of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) staff in the embassy in Damascus, Syria, allegedly engaged in sexual acts with OFWs staying at the embassy’s shelter for distressed workers.
Shocked at accusations
Bello claimed this was apparently part of a scheme—dubbed by some as a “sex-for-fly” operation—where sexual favors were sought in exchange for helping an OFW get home to the Philippines.
One of the officials named by Bello—Polo-Jordan welfare officer Mario Antonio—denied running a prostitution ring using OFWs.
Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (Owwa) Administrator Carmelita Dimzon said she talked with Antonio on Tuesday and “he was shocked.”
“He was denying it. But he said he is not afraid and is ready to face anybody,” Dimzon told the Inquirer over the phone. She said Antonio arrived in Manila on June 11 as his tour of duty had ended.
“Actually his tour of duty ended last year but he was appointed officer in charge labor attaché so he extended his stay there,” Dimzon added.
Dimzon said: “Let’s wait for the investigation to finish, and let’s also hear the side of those being accused. Rest assured that those who will be found at fault will be punished.”
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario will meet with Bello on Wednesday to seek further information on his accusations, according to the DFA.
Bello urged Del Rosario and Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz to remove the three officials from their posts, recall them to Manila and have them face criminal prosecution.
“Sexual abuse on our womenfolk perpetrated by their hosts in a foreign country is an awful crime,” Bello said.
“But there is something more awful, and that is their exploitation by their own compatriots in that strange land. And it is triply terrible when they are exploited sexually by government officials who are supposed to protect them,” he added.
Bello said his information came from “unimpeachable sources” in the DFA and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).
“Our sources asked us to expose the criminals in their ranks because their acts are giving the agencies a bad name and they can no longer tolerate the inaction of their superiors,” he said.
He said at least one of the victims was considering filing a formal complaint.
In the case of Antonio, Bello said this official had been accused by embassy personnel and OFWs of letting some of his wards at the OFW shelter go out at night so that they could service wealthy Palestinian clients.
Citing statements from witnesses, Bello said the clients were charged as much as $1,000 a night. He claimed Antonio’s activities had caught the attention of the Jordan government, which asked that he be recalled.
“He is, in effect, running a prostitution ring using distressed OFWs. This man’s activities are so disreputable and illegal that the government of Jordan has requested that he be removed,” Bello said.
As for the Kuwait-based officer, he had been accused of being long involved in a sex-for-hire scheme, using his countrymen staying at the Filipino Workers’ Resource Center, Bello said.
Bello said this officer had not been punished because he was supposedly a townmate of former Ambassador to Kuwait Shulan Primavera.
“Apparently, Polo officials have to condone Predator Three [referring to the Kuwait-based officer] because he might spill the beans as he knows many unlawful incidents in Polo,” Bello said.
“We ask: Why, with all the evidence of using OFWs as prostitutes and cheating them, is this sexual predator allowed to remain in his post? How does a mere local hire hold a whole embassy hostage to his nefarious activities?” he said.
Bello claimed that embassy officials in Kuwait and labor authorities in Manila were guilty of criminal complicity.
In the case of the augmentation team member in Syria, Bello said this person was caught on New Year’s Day this year in an intimate act with a female OFW at the Philippine Embassy’s shelter for distressed workers in Syria. Three witnesses filed affidavits attesting to the incident.
Embassy and DFA officials in Manila later found the staff member’s actions to have violated regulations against the fraternization of embassy personnel with their wards but Bello said the employee was only given a “tap on the wrist.”
Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz has ordered an investigation of the alleged “sex-for-fly” activities at the Polo office.
Baldoz also issued Administrative Order No. 239 ordering the creation of a team that will investigate the reports.
“I am resolved to get to the bottom of any accusation of wrongdoing against our people to uphold their credibility and integrity,” Baldoz said in a statement.
“We do not condone any inappropriate act of any official and personnel, most especially if it involves the performance of their official duties,” she said.
Currently in Geneva for an international conference, Baldoz said the reports on the “sex-for-fly” practice of officials and personnel in the Polo office in Kuwait surfaced when an unidentified female OFW sought the help of a radio station and aired a complaint about an “embassy official” who allegedly demanded sexual favor to facilitate her repatriation.
Baldoz called on those with information on the modus operandi to get in touch with the investigating team at Tel. Nos. (02) 527-3000 local 705, (02) 551-1560, (02) 551-6641, (02) 722-1144 and (02) 722-1155.
“We take this kind of allegations very seriously,” she said.
The team that Baldoz ordered to investigate is composed of lawyer Leah Fortuna of the Office of the Secretary as chair, Ophelia Almenario of Owwa and Rosemarie Duquez of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).
“Our core interest is to protect our OFWs in every instance,” Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, the DFA spokespeman, said in a statement. “We are disturbed by the news reports that we are receiving regarding the sex-related offenses allegedly committed by embassy personnel.”
Sex-related controversies have hounded the foreign service this year, with sexual harassment charges filed against Primavera and similar charges leveled against Philippine Consul General to Vancouver Jose Ampeso.
Primavera was charged with allegedly sexually abusing his household helper in Kuwait on at least three occasions last year.