MANILA, Philippines—The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Thursday established a fact-finding body to investigate the alleged sexual exploitation of distressed female Filipino workers by Philippine Embassy and labor officials in three countries in the Middle East.
The DFA also asked eight other diplomats in the Middle East to come home “for consultations.”
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario ordered the eight ambassadors to return to Manila for a discussion on the alleged abuses and draw up measures to prevent such offenses from recurring in the country’s foreign missions.
The ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon were summoned a day after Del Rosario called home the ambassadors to Jordan, Syria and Kuwait, and officials tagged in the alleged abuses to give their side of the scandal.
“We need to have our ambassadors participate in the fact-finding initiatives that the DFA has started. We need to find ways to collectively encourage victims and witnesses to come forward and submit formal complaints and testimonies,” said Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, the DFA spokesperson.
Hernandez said the diplomats would work together in gathering information on the alleged sexual exploitation of female migrant workers, exposed by Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello on Tuesday.
Citing information from “unimpeachable sources” within the DFA itself, Bello accused at least three officials in the Jordan, Kuwait and Syria embassies of prostituting or soliciting sexual favors from female workers staying in the shelters there while awaiting repatriation to the Philippines.
One of the labor officers named by Bello, Mario Antonio, overseas welfare officer in Jordan, blamed the allegations against him on illegal recruiters and human traffickers.
Antonio faced reporters at the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (Owwa) office on Thursday and appealed to the public not to judge him and instead wait for the results of the DFA and Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) investigation.
“The allegations are not true and may be the work of recruitment agencies and traffickers we crossed in protecting our [migrant workers],” Antonio said, reading from a prepared statement.
“Maybe they want to get back at us,” he said. “They will find ways to derail us from the track we are pursuing against illegal recruitment and human trafficking.”
But Bello threatened to disclose more damaging evidence against Antonio if he insisted on blaming the sexual exploitation of migrant workers in Jordan on illegal recruitment agencies and human traffickers.
“We don’t want to preempt the investigation, but if he continues with his brazen lies, we’re going to make more of his misdeeds public,” Bello told the Inquirer by phone after a meeting with Assistant Labor Secretary Rebecca Chato at the House of Representatives.
Owwa Administrator Carmelita Dimzon vouched for Antonio, describing him as a “very dependable welfare officer.”
“So far he was able to deliver. Every time I gave him assignments, he obliged without questions,” Dimzon said.
She said Owwa employees, particularly welfare officers in other countries, felt demoralized because of the scandal.
But Bello said his information came from “mid- to high-level” officers in the DFA and the DOLE.
Bello also named Blas Marquez, a labor officer at the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait, as the one running the prostitution ring there using distressed female migrant workers.
He also tagged a certain Mr. Kim as an abuser of Filipino women in the embassy in Damascus.
Bello promised to resign from the House if criminal charges would not be brought against Antonio and Marquez “within a reasonable period.”
Bello called for a parallel investigation independent of the DFA-DOLE probe, saying his informants from the two agencies were more willing to talk in a Malacañang-initiated inquiry.
“They’ll feel safer and more confident in an independent investigation initiated by the Palace,” Bello said.
In his meeting with Chato, Bello said he asked the DOLE to expand its investigation to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Acting Senate President Jinggoy Estrada yesterday threatened to cut the budgets of the DFA and the DOLE to P1 if they failed to “resolve with dispatch” the alleged sexual exploitation of Filipino women in the three Middle East countries.
“I’m just about infuriated as everyone else that embassy and Philippine Overseas Labor Office authorities are making money by using our distressed overseas Filipino workers in this manner,” Estrada said in an e-mailed statement written in Filipino.
Estrada, chair of the Senate labor committee, challenged the government agencies concerned to “dismantle this network operating in Middle East countries and preying on our distressed Filipina workers, and put an end to this exploitative practice, beginning with the expulsion of erring embassy and labor officials from their posts, and their prosecution for criminal and trafficking offenses.”
How they work
Quoting victims, John Leonard Monterona, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa of the migrant rights group Migrante International, said embassy and labor officials would ask distressed Filipino women if they had money to pay for their flight home to the Philippines.
Having lost their jobs or run away from abusive employers, the women have no money, Monterona said in a statement issued Thursday.
The officials would talk to them and make an “indecent proposal” involving a “client,” he said.
During the night, the women would be fetched by the driver or a staffer of the embassy or labor official to be taken to the clients.
Monterona said the women were paid 500 rial ($130) to 1,000 rial ($260) for their services.
Desperate women accepted 100 rial ($26) to 300 rial ($78), he said.
Monterona said the information came from victims who had talked with Migrante officers in Saudi Arabia.
The DFA is calling on victims or informants to cooperate with its investigation.
Starting Friday, complainants or informants may contact mobile number 0928-8363756, the DFA’s dedicated hot line for the investigation of the scandal. With reports from Christian Esguerra, Tina G. Santos and Cathy Yamsuan
Originally posted at 07:07 pm | Thursday, June 20, 2013