MANILA, Philippines—A Philippine overseas labor official accused of running a prostitution ring using distressed overseas Filipino workers in Jordan said Wednesday he suspects illegal recruitment agencies and human traffickers were behind the allegations against him.
Mario Antonio, welfare officer of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Jordan, denied the accusations in a radio interview and said illegal recruiters were out to destroy him.
“The allegations are not true and may be the work of recruitment agencies and traffickers we crossed in protecting our OFWs… maybe they want to get back at us and would find ways of derail us from the track we are pursuing against illegal recruitment and human trafficking,” he said in Filipino.
“Surely they are the ones making up this news because we have run over their modus operandi in sending trafficked workers to Jordan which is still illegal,” he added.
Antonio said most OFWs in Jordan managed to enter that country through illegal means.
“Most of them are victims of illegal recruitment,” Antonio said, citing the Philippines’ current ban on the deployment of Filipino workers to Jordan.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer called up Antonio but he declined to answer questions, saying he would face the members of the media in a press conference at the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration office on Thursday morning.
Meanwhile, Blas Marquez, another official identified by Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello as allegedly involved in the sex scandal, has already been placed under preventive suspension effective Wednesday, according to lawyer Leah Fortuna, head of the team formed by Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz that is to investigate the allegations.
Fortuna said Marquez, a local hire of the POLO in Kuwait, received from the Philippine labor attaché in Kuwait, David Des Dicang, the memorandum regarding his relief on Tuesday night.
“He (Marquez) was suspended in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, so he could not interact with our clientele or the OFWs. But in the memo, he was instructed to be always available for purposes of investigation once our team arrives in Kuwait,” she said in an interview.
Fortuna said the investigating team will leave for Kuwait on June 28 “to see the situation there and for purposes of documentation and validation of information.” She said she would also recommend that the team proceed to Jordan for the investigation.
Fortuna said that to date, they have yet to receive any complaint from OFWs allegedly victimized by the Philippine officials.
She said they were able to talk to at least three OFWs from Kuwait who either denied having personal knowledge about the issue or claimed that they had only heard about it from their fellow workers.
Fortuna said that Antonio was already issued a show-cause order and is scheduled to appear at the Department of Labor and Employment on Thursday to explain his side.
“It’s part of the process, part of the SOP (standard operating procedure),” she said. “But our only basis for asking him to explain is the statement of Congressman Bello since no one, no complainant, has surfaced or submitted an affidavit yet.”
Fortuna said the investigating team would have wanted to get copies of the affidavits that Bello reportedly mentioned in his statement “to be fair to the people implicated so they can be able to respond substantively.”
“It may not be avoided that issues such as this arise. Once it’s there, it is validated and processes are also in place how this should be addressed, how employees involved are made to answer,” she said, adding that they will continue to coordinate with Bello.
“But until that [affidavit] is produced, we will find ways on our own, to locate the alleged victims,” she said.
“For now, our task is to document and evaluate if the allegations have basis, if the stories are true, if there is supporting evidence or testimony of those involved,” Fortuna said, adding that the investigating team hoped to complete the fact-finding and documentation before July 15.
“From there, we will decide whether there is a basis to pursue an administrative investigation. This is for the purposes of finding out if there is an offense or rules they have violated,” she added.
Meanwhile, OFWs who were allegedly victims of sexual advances and abuses by Philippine officials have conveyed their willingness to testify if authorities will provide them security, according to the Filipino migrant rights group Migrante.
“An OFW victim along with two others conveyed to us that they will issue an affidavit and will file a complaint if Philippine authorities could assure their safety and provide security upon return to the Philippines,” said Migrante vice chair John Leonard Monterona, the group’s coordinator in the Middle East and North Africa.
“We welcome the calls to probe the sexual abuses allegation against embassy and labor officials. This is not new as we have been reporting this years ago about Philippine officials who are taking advantage of the distressed women OFWs at halfway shelter by pimping the latter in exchange for money so that they can buy an airplane tickets for their repatriation,” Monterona said.
Monterona added sexual advances and abuses among distressed women OFWs by embassy and labor officials especially in the Middle East was “common knowledge” among in overseas Filipino communities.