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(UPDATE) Inquiry into RP diplomats’ maids sought

First Posted 13:38:00 07/07/2008

MANILA, Philippines?An opposition senator Monday called for an inquiry into the working conditions of the household staff of Philippine diplomats abroad after a maid alleged shabby treatment while working with the family of a former top ambassador.

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada made the proposal even as he came to the defense of the Philippines? former chief envoy to the United Nations, retired Ambassador Lauro Baja Jr.

Marichu Suarez Baoanan, a Filipino nursing graduate who had worked as a maid for the Baja family in New York in 2006, has filed a complaint with a US court against the family, alleging trafficking, forced labor, peonage and racketeering.

Baja said the accusations were a complete falsehood and his wife, Norma, said the family had asked a US-based lawyer to file for damages against Baoanan.

Estrada, who was skeptical of the allegations against Baja, said in a press conference that he would call for an inquiry into the matter if there was evidence to prove the former maid?s complaint.

Estrada said the reported $200 per month compensation to Baoanan was ?too low? and this deserved to be investigated by the Senate.

?The lowest salary of a domestic helper who goes abroad is $400 a month and we have cases where some are paid only half of their contracted salary when they reach their employer abroad,? Estrada said.

While he does not know whether a maid hired in the Philippines should be paid the prevailing labor rate at a diplomat?s foreign posting, Estrada said the household help ?should not be on the short end of the stick.?

He said that he would file a resolution in the Senate to look into whether the domestic staff of Philippine diplomats overseas were compensated properly and treated humanely.

$1,000 a month

Estrada said he was giving Baja the benefit of the doubt considering that he knew Baja to be hardworking.

?In my personal opinion, I don?t believe that his former maid would make those accusations after working for him for only three months,? Estrada said.

?Yes (I will vouch for him). I?ve known him personally, even his wife, I knew them well and I don?t think they would do such a thing.?

Baja Monday said he paid his former maid $1,000 a month and had papers to show it.

Clarifying a report that Baoanan was paid $200 monthly, Baja said that during her three-month stay with the family, Baoanan got $200 pocket money monthly and that the bulk of her salary, or $800, went to her family in the Philippines.

Baja said he had acknowledgments and receipts for this.

?The salary of $1,000 was required by the US Embassy before (Baoanan?s) visa was issued,? the former ambassador said on the phone.

The Baja family has said that Baoanan stayed only three months with them before she left suddenly without giving notice.

Undeserved publicity

Baoanan has alleged in her complaint that she was paid only $100 for three months of work in the Baja household and another $100 for the care of Baja?s grandchild.

Sen. Edgardo Angara felt the complaint filed against Baja did not deserve headline treatment.

?Ambassador Baja is a brilliant diplomat. I hope we do not give this case that kind of publicity because the case is not that extraordinary,? Angara told reporters.

?Like Ambassador Baja said, this might be just a way of getting back at him. I hope this issue was not printed on the front page and it should have been [published] together with Ambassador Baja?s side,? Angara said.

Maza: Liable in RP courts

One of the main authors of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, Gabriela party-list Rep. Liza Maza, said Baja may be liable for qualified trafficking under Philippine law if Baoanan pursued the case in a Philippine court.

?It is disturbing that a Philippine ambassador, no less than the head of the Philippine Mission to the United Nations and a former president of the UN Security Council, is now being accused of trafficking,? Maza said.

?(He) should be setting the standards for the compensation and treatment of Filipina workers,? she added.

?The minimum wage in the United States is actually $5.85 per hour. Moreover, the average Filipina domestic worker is paid $300 to $500,? Maza said.

Labor cases

The party-list group said in a statement that the Baja-owned Labaire International Travel, which Baoanan reportedly initially approached to help her go to the United States, had been involved in cases dealing with alleged noncompliance with labor standards and breach of contract.

It said the labor department in Metro Manila in 2003 found Norma Baja and Elizabeth Baja of Labaire guilty of noncompliance with labor standards involving former employees who were supposedly forced to sign cash vouchers and quit claims in exchange for their salaries amounting to P298,481.15.

The group added that in 1995, the Manila Regional Trial Court found Labaire guilty of breach of contract for failure to comply with a travel and tour package to Palawan which had already been partially paid for by the complainants.

The Court of Appeals later reversed both decisions.

Baja, in a phone interview, said he did not know about those cases, saying the travel agency was a corporation. With a report from Norman Bordadora

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