MANILA, July 1, 2013 (PHILSTAR) By Mayen Jaymalin - Two more former overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who were victims of sexual abuse in government-run centers in the Middle East are set to file charges against labor personnel, the Blas Ople Policy Center (BOPC) reported yesterday.

Malacañang said women officers will be prioritized in the selection of personnel to run the welfare centers in the Middle East to ensure that distressed OFWs, especially women, will be properly cared for.

The fact-finding team formed by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to investigate the alleged involvement of labor officials in the sex-for-repatriation scheme hope to come out with the results of the probe before the end of July.

BOPC head Susan Ople said they are assisting the two victims who have expressed willingness to come forward in order to prevent a repeat of the alleged exploitation of distressed OFWs sheltered in the welfare centers.

“One of them has already met with our lawyers, while we expect the second complainant to come forward anytime this week. Though they are not victims of the sex-for-flight scheme, their experiences at these shelters are important to underscore the need for reforms,” Ople said in a statement.

She called on all OFWs who have stayed or are still staying at the embassy premises and shelters run by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) to share their experiences.

“Share what you know and we will do our best to document your experiences and convert all these into a confidential report as basis for justice and reforms,” she said.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said President Aquino had been apprised of the status of the investigation into the alleged sex-for-repatriation scandal.

Valte said the Palace is satisfied with the ongoing investigation. She said they do not want to preempt anything by making comments on the initial findings of the probe, even as she gave assurance that necessary actions would be taken.

Leah Fortuna, head of the DOLE fact-finding team, said they would return from the Middle East by July 13. She hoped to come up with the result of the fact-finding mission and with the recommendations five days later.

Fortuna said the three-member team would fly to Kuwait on Saturday and would stay there until July 3. The team will proceed to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to gather evidence until July 9, and to Jordan before returning home on July 13.

Valte said DOLE Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz deemed it best to let women officers run the welfare centers, one of the initial measures to be taken in order to protect the runaway OFWs sheltered at the halfway houses in the Middle East.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has asked the heads of the Philippine consulates in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore to fly home and join consultations on how OFWs in welfare centers are being treated.

Valte said Riyadh-based assistant labor attaché Antonio Villafuerte had been ordered to return home to answer the charges.

Labor Undersecretary Danilo Cruz urged OFWs who are victims of sexual abuses in welfare centers to come out and testify.

“The complainants need not sign an affidavit because under our rules, we can undertake administrative proceedings based on mere statements of the aggrieved parties,” Cruz said.

He said if the fact-finding body would find sufficient evidence to file administrative charges, the labor secretary has the authority to create another body that will undertake the formal investigation.

The investigating team, Cruz said, is just a fact-finding committee as he noted the need to form another team to conduct administrative proceedings against erring labor officials.

He said the filing of criminal complaints is the option of the aggrieved Filipino workers and not of the DOLE.

As of press time, Cruz said, only two labor officials – acting labor attaché to Jordan Mario Antonio and Villafuerte – and Blas Marquez, a staff at the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Kuwait, have been accused of engaging in the sex-for-repatriation scheme.

Fortuna said only complainants against Villafuerte have so far surfaced and filed their affidavits. She said they have been receiving reports that there are other OFWs who are willing to testify against other labor officials.

The lawyer said the testimonies and documents from the three alleged victims of Villafuerte would be submitted today to Baldoz, who was set to arrive from Geneva last night.

Villafuerte has been recalled to Manila while Antonio has already submitted his written explanation to the investigation team. Marquez has been suspended.

Cruz clarified the government has not confirmed yet the charges against the labor officials and the investigating team is still in the process of gathering evidence.

Reopen Frankfurt consulate

Vice President Jejomar Binay has asked President Aquino to reopen the Philippine consulate in Frankfurt, Germany to better serve OFWs there.

Binay, presidential adviser on OFW concerns, said 75 to 80 percent of the more than 50,000 OFWs in Germany live closer to Frankfurt than Berlin, where the embassy is located.

“In light of all the remarks I have heard from Filipinos during this visit, the President may wish to instruct the Department of Foreign Affairs to consider revisiting its decision on July 31, 2012 closing down the Philippine consulate general in Frankfurt,” Binay said in his letter to the President.

He said the OFWs were affected by the closure of the Philippine consulate in Frankfurt, particularly in availing of passport services and assistance.

“Whether this recommendation is feasible or not, there is an immediate need to provide adequate consular service in Frankfurt,” Binay said.

He said this could take the form of opening additional consular offices posted to Berlin, but stationed in Frankfurt.– With Aurea Calica, Jose Rodel Clapano

Admin, criminal raps eyed vs execs in OFW sex scandal (The Philippine Star) | Updated June 27, 2013 - 12:00am

Three of the victims in the OFW sex abuse scandal hide their identities during a meeting with Senator-elect Cynthia Villar in a restaurant in Taguig, where they received cash and livelihood assistance yesterday. EDD GUMBAN

MANILA, Philippines - Government probers are eyeing administrative and criminal charges against labor officials accused of sexually molesting distressed overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Three of the women – identified only as Michelle, Annaliza and Angel – have provided more detailed accounts of their molestation allegedly at the hands of assistant labor attaché in Riyadh Antonio Villafuerte.

In a television interview, Villafuerte denied the accusations. He is set to arrive in Manila tonight after being recalled by his superiors to face an investigation.

At the labor department, Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said they are preparing a preliminary investigation into Villafuerte’s case to determine if there is prima facie evidence for the filing of an administrative case against him.

“We will just be awaiting the written explanation of Villafuerte, and with the sworn affidavits of the three alleged victims we can already start with the preliminary hearing,” Baldoz said.

Angel and Annaliza said that while at Bahay Kalinga in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Villafuerte told them to do part time job as sex workers to raise money for their return flight to the Philippines. They said they rejected his proposal.

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Angel, 28, said her Saudi employer raped her, prompting her to flee and seek refuge at the Philippine embassy.

She said she began working in Riyadh only last May.

After suffering from physical abuse at the hands of her employer, Annaliza, 38, decided to escape last February, barely two months after she was hired.

Michelle, 39, also accused Villafuerte of sexually molesting her.

She claimed that on May 19, she went to the Philippine Overseas Labor Office to follow up her case after escaping from her employer who reportedly refused to honor their contract. She said that while at the POLO office, Villafuerte fondled her and tried to kiss her.

Criminal raps possible

Officials accused of maltreating or sexually abusing distressed Filipina workers taking shelter in Philippine embassies abroad may be criminally charged under Philippine laws, Vice President Jejomar Binay said yesterday.

Binay, presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers’ concerns, said the Philippine embassy is considered an extension of the country, thus anyone in its premises is covered by Philippine laws.

The vice president issued the clarification after the three former OFWs came out in the open recently and named Villafuerte as their tormentor.

“If the crime happened outside the embassy, it is under the jurisdiction of the host country. Criminal and administrative charges can still be filed but the process will be done in the country where the crime happened. The government can help the victims pursue the case,” Binay said.

“They can be charged with administrative and criminal charges and we can only process criminal charges if the crime happened inside the embassy,” he said.

He lauded the women for coming out and assured them of protection as well as punishment for the erring officials if they are found guilty.

“Don’t be afraid. Those who perpetrated the crime must be the one to be afraid. Report to us immediately whatever cases of abuse so that we can immediately do something about it,” Binay said.

“You are assured of government’s help in pursuing the case against those who are abusing OFWs,” he said.

Binay said the prompt action of Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario is proof that the administration is determined to address the issue.

He welcomed Del Rosario’s order to expand the probe to include other foreign posts.

Preliminary probe set

“We consider the accusations very serious and we’re not condoning any misbehavior,” Baldoz said Tuesday night shortly after arriving from Qatar.

“Villafuerte needs to get copies of the affidavits of the three complainants so he could answer accusations point by point,” she said.

Baldoz said a three-member committee headed by Assistant Labor Secretary Gloria Tango would conduct the preliminary administrative proceedings against Villafuerte.

Baldoz said the committee need not wait for the findings of the investigating team, which is to fly to the Middle East for a two-week mission to interview more workers and gather documents.

“Upon submission of Villafuerte’s written answer, the hearing can proceed immediately. Then based on the results of the hearing and the findings of the investigative panel, the committee can submit the case for resolution,” Baldoz said.

The labor chief said the special investigating committee is expected to come out with findings within 30 days from the submission of evidence.

“Give him (Villafuerte) the opportunity to reply to all the charges and to confront the complainants and also the witnesses so we can establish the truth,” she said.

A public official charged and found guilty of administrative offense faces dismissal from the service.

She said the three Filipina workers who surfaced recently only tagged Villafuerte in the sex scandal.

No one has come forward to implicate acting labor attaché Mario Antonio and POLO employee Blas Marquez, tagged earlier by Akbayan party-list Walden Bello in the exploitation of distressed Filipina workers in Jordan and Kuwait.

With no formal complaint filed against Antonio, Baldoz said she has instructed the investigating panel to prioritize Riyadh in its fact-finding mission.

She also said she hopes the controversy would jumpstart more reforms in the bureaucracy, particularly in foreign offices.

To address the issue of sexual harassment, Baldoz said she ordered the immediate deployment of additional welfare and labor officials to the Middle East to handle complaints of distressed female workers.

Baldoz said female labor officials would now manage welfare centers and halfway homes for distressed Filipino workers.

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) also rejected calls from some non-governmental organizations to include representatives of civil society groups in the government panel tasked to investigate the scandal.

“It’s an internal function for the DOLE, but we encourage NGOs to support our investigation by presenting witnesses or information regarding the issue,” Labor Undersecretary Danilo Cruz said.

It was the Blas Ople Policy Center which made the request that DOLE and the Department of Foreign Affairs allow NGOs to sit in the investigative panel.

Help for 3 victims

Meanwhile, Senator-elect Cynthia Villar gave financial assistance – through the Villar Foundation – to the three Filipina workers.

In a press statement, Villar said she met the victims in a restaurant in Taguig and personally handed to them the cash assistance. The amount covers their return flight as well as livelihood assistance. Her press statement did not specify the amount.

“This is in line with our livelihood program. They can put up a sari-sari store with the groceries. Now, it is up to them to do their best for their small business to grow,” Villar said.

She said the creation of a department solely dedicated to OFWs would simplify and harmonize efforts at ensuring their welfare.

“We should ensure that our OFWs are always protected since they are our ‘modern day heroes’, and we draw a lifeline from the remittances they send to their families in the country,” Villar pointed out.

Villar’s husband, outgoing Sen. Manuel Villar, promised to closely monitor the cases even if he becomes a private citizen next week.

“I will watch over their cases, and make sure that something will happen. We will not allow any whitewash,” he said. Mayen Jaymalin, Rudy Santos

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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