Labor officers in Saudi Arabia will be included in the investigation being conducted by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) on the alleged sexual exploitation of distressed Filipino workers in the Middle East, Assistant Labor Secretary Rebecca Chato said.
Aside from Kuwait and Jordan, the DOLE fact-finding body will now include Saudi Arabia, particularly Riyadh, in its investigation, following accusations from an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) that a labor officer in Saudi had asked her to sleep with him in his home instead of in a temporary shelter when she sought help from Philippine authorities there.
The OFW, identified only as a certain “Michelle,” said that she was also offered to an Egyptian client, but that the man took pity on her instead and bought her a plane ticket to Manila.
“Michelle” went to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (Owwa) office on Friday to seek assistance, Owwa head Carmelita Dimzon said, and was referred to the investigative panel.
But the labor department has yet to get her official statement, she added.
Akbayan party-list Rep. Walden Bello this week accused at least three officials in Philippine labor offices and embassies in Jordan, Kuwait and Syria of soliciting sexual favors from distressed OFWs staying in shelters and awaiting repatriation to Manila.
Labor officer Mario Antonio, whom Bello had named as among the three erring officials, came out to deny the allegations and blamed illegal recruiters and human traffickers for what he described as “black propaganda.”
To investigate Bello’s allegations, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario formed a fact-finding body and ordered home “for consultation” the country’s ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon.
Chato said the labor department was exerting all efforts to convince the alleged victims to come forward and testify. The exploited OFWs appeared reluctant to file formal complaints for fear of repercussions from the officials implicated in the sex scandal, according to the DOLE.
“We appeal to the victims to come out and help us help you. We will protect you and your identity,” Chato said.
But a labor official, who requested anonymity, said investigations would continue even without the signed affidavits.
Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said the agency was exerting all efforts to get to the bottom of the scandal.
Baldoz, who is in Milan, Italy, with Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala for an agribusiness investment forum, said the DOLE has an understanding with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for their parallel investigations to be thorough and complete.
She also assured accused labor officials of “due process,” adding that “not a single person has filed a formal complaint against the personnel named in the allegations that continue to play out in the media.”
“It is our people who are being accused in the media, but isn’t it ironic that it is us who are looking out for complainants?” said Baldoz.
No personal knowledge
Lawyer Leah Fortuna, who heads the DOLE investigative panel, told Baldoz that the panel had already identified the three who were among the 48 alleged victims of sexual abuse, but that the three had said that they had no personal knowledge of, or information about, the allegations.
Fortuna said the investigative panel was looking for the remaining OFWs through the DOLE, Poea and Owwa regional offices.
The government investigation will also determine whether the “sex for repatriation” scandal in the Middle East has been going on for years, Malacañang said yesterday, even as it assured overseas workers of a “fair” investigation.
Undersecretary Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson, said the scheme could not be confirmed, as no victim had come forward to execute an affidavit about his or her experience.
Valte, however, expressed confidence that the separate investigations by the DOLE and the DFA would uncover the practice if it existed.
“That will be seen in the investigation,” Valte said. “And if there are stories like this, I’d just like to mention that both departments are open to receive complaints,” she added.
In fact, she said, the DFA was waiting for “Michelle” to surface and contact them. “The DFA is reaching out to her to get her formal statement so it can be put down as a formal complaint,” Valte said.
She assured OFWs victimized by the scheme that “investigations like this … would be given appropriate attention, and you will be given fair treatment by our colleagues.”
Valte said she had yet to take up Bello’s proposal for Malacañang to mount an independent inquiry with President Aquino.
“We’ll raise (the proposal) to him. A presidential task force of sorts, I suppose,” Valte said, adding that both the DFA and the DOLE were committed to share updates of their separate investigations with the Office of the President.
Valte said President Aquino would always remind newly deployed ambassadors to a foreign country to focus on the welfare of OFWs.
Baldoz also expressed appreciation to Bello and Sen. Jinggoy Estrada for their concern about the matter, and appealed to them for more information that could fast-track the work of the investigative team.
“We are determined to get into the bottom of this issue as the DOLE does not condone any inappropriate act of any of its official and personnel, most especially if it involves the performance of their official duties, particularly those mandated to protect our OFWs. Integrity and sincerity in public service are among the core values that we in the DOLE have sworn to uphold and abide by in everything we do,” Baldoz said.
A nongovernment organization, however, took the government to task on the “sex-for-repatriation” issue.
In a statement, Migrante International said the issue is “an exploitation borne out of the Aquino government’s failure to address the immediate repatriation of distressed OFWs.”
“The bottom line here is (that) abusive embassy and consulate officials are taking advantage of the desperation of OFWs. The further exploitation of the exploited,” said Migrante International chair Garry Martinez. With a report by TJ A. Burgonio