HONG KONG – Guilty. If it were a court, an investigative team formed by the Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong to look into allegations of abuse of power and possible corruption against former Labor Attaché Manuel Roldan would have reached this conclusion.
The fact-finding committee formed on orders of Consul General Bernardita Catalla listed a series of damning “observations” on Roldan’s conduct in its report issued on September 29. The SUN, a Filipino community newspaper, recently obtained a copy of the report.
The report noted certain acts of Roldan that violated Philippine laws and regulations, specifically those pertaining to conflict of interest rules in civil service.
The report also made the startling revelation that the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) under Roldan had submitted a visibly tampered document, apparently in a bid to deflect a major accusation against him.
The investigation was launched on August 26, in response to a series of complaints made against Roldan by the Coalition of Service Providers for Ethnic Minorities (CSPEM) in Hong Kong.
The inquiry was centered on 4 main allegations cited in CSPEM’s complaint:
- that Roldan misused his position and authority in allowing the accreditation of an employment agency registered in the name of a daughter of Donald Retirado, a locally-hired staff of DOLE
- that Roldan accredited more than 70 recruitment agencies in violation of an existing ban
- that his mismanagement, poor negotiations, and lack of foresight led to loss of the the POLO-run Filipino Workers Resource Center (FWRC), which was provided free of charge by the Hong Kong government
- that POLO’s conciliation of money claims against employment agencies by Filipino workers may be illegal and inefficient
The committee’s 12-page report, with voluminous attachments, was immediately forwarded to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) in Manila and several related offices under the Department of Foreign Affairs.
However, more than a month after, there was no word on whether further action would be taken by DOLE or the DFA.
A copy of the report was also provided to CSPEM, but as the report was labeled “confidential” and carried dire warnings against unauthorized disclosure of its contents, The SUN was able to obtain it only after writing a letter-request to Congen Catalla, citing public interest.
In her response allowing the report’s release, Congen Catalla said, “Kindly note that the findings of the Committee as contained in this report are initial, partial, and inconclusive.”
She also said she expected DOLE to conduct its own “independent and full investigation” into the complaints as Roldan is its official.
‘Impossible not to know’
On the first issue, the fact-finding committee headed by Vice Consul Fatima Guzman was unequivocal in rejecting Roldan’s claim that he did not know that the placement agency, Magnificent Maid, was owned by Retirado’s daughter.
The team also doused cold water on Roldan’s assertion that the power of accreditation did not rest with him, but with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) in Manila.
In rejecting both claims, the report said: “It is logical to assume that POEA approved the accreditation of Magnificent Maid Employment Agency based upon the favorable endorsement by the Labor Attaché, the head of POLO. It is impossible for the Labor Attaché not to notice the relationship between the owner of then applicant agency and POLO’s local hire, Mr. Donald D. Retirado”.
The report also noted that the subsequent resignation of Retirado effective September 30 did not free him and Labatt Roldan of any obligation resulting from their unlawful act.
“The resignation of Mr. Retirado does not absolve him, nor the Labor Attaché of the violation, committed under the above-cited specific regulation and other possible existing pertinent Philippine laws and regulations, especially those that govern the Civil Service,” said the report.
More damning was the succeeding paragraph: “The Committee notes that the copy of the employment contract of Mr. Donald Retirado, which POLO furnished the Committee, showed a visibly tampered validity period of “one year,” covering January 1-July 31, 2014. When verified with the Consulate’s Notarial Section, the original contract showed a validity period covering January 1-December 31, 2014.”
Disparity in figures
While making no conclusive statement on whether Roldan had abused his authority by accrediting more than the usual number of placement agencies during his term, the committee noted that an additional 90 agencies were given authority to hire Filipino workers during his tenure from December 2011 to July 2014.
Equally glaring was the disparity between POLO’s official records and the numbers given by Roldan in his reply to the committee. Roldan said 531 agencies were accredited as of 2011, while records kept by his office only listed 319.
But the committee made no finding on allegations that the continuing accreditations violated a long-standing ban, which community media reported was imposed in 2001 by then Labor Attaché Bernardino Julve.
The only claim rejected outright by the committee was that pertaining to Roldan’s alleged mismanagement that led to the loss of the POLO-run shelter, FWRC, which was provided free of charge since March 2000 by the Hong Kong government.
“The Committee was unable to gather information, comments or documents that will establish whether POLO under Labatt Roldan had, indeed, been remiss, negligent, inefficient or ineffective in performing the functions especially with regard to the operations of the Centre,” said the report.
However, it did note that there could be a basis for the allegation that the shelter was lost due to his “poor negotiation and lack of foresight.”
According to the committee, the Hong Kong government had merely conveyed its “intention to recover possession” of the site in a letter dated August 2, 2011. However, instead of appealing for a reconsideration of this position, Roldan immediately asked for an alternative site.
The offered alternative, the Yaumatei Market Building, had to be rejected after negotiations that lasted two years because Roldan failed to realize early on that there were restrictions on using it as a residential facility. Also, he did not know that Philippine laws prohibit the use of public funds for the renovation of a private property.
Corollary to this was the allegation of “deplorable conditions” at the FRWC shelter, now housed in a private flat in Kennedy Town district.
An on-site inspection by the investigators showed that since there were only 10 wards in the shelter at the time, the conditions were not as bad as depicted.
However, interviews with the wards revealed their dire situation, including being made to eat leftover food that “most have suffered from stomach ache.”
The wards also complained about the lack of medicine for simple illnesses, as well as personal supplies like sanitary napkins and soap.
The team also noted that two TV sets in the shelter were not being used because of the absence of broadband or cable access. The administrative officer who resides in the shelter said this was also meant to “minimize power consumption and cut cost.”
Conciliation is illegal
Regarding the 4th allegation, the Committee did not dispute Roldan’s defense that the conciliation of workers’ claims for refunding fees collected by recruitment agencies had been a long-standing practice of POLO.
However, it noted: “It is clear that Mr Roldan took it upon himself to expand POLO Hong Kong’s conciliation services from those whose contracts were pre-terminated, to all OFWs who have problems with their employment,” said the report.
What should have been done, said the committee, is to put a stop to conciliation altogether. It noted that during a meeting with Congen Catalla and the visiting Philippine Prosecutor General Claro Arellano, Hong Kong’s Acting Director of Prosecutions said that the conciliation of violations of the labor ordinance, specially overcharging of placement fees, is illegal in the territory.
The committee also took note that even Philippine Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said during a recent visit to Hong Kong that placement fees paid by Filipino household services must be refunded in full.
“The Labor Secretary’s instruction for full refund of placement fees must be strictly implemented. To leave room for conciliation of clear violation of labor laws/ordinances could open/widen windows for abuse of authority, misconduct and graft and corruption,” the report concluded. – Rappler.com
The author is a veteran journalist, having worked for various newspapers and TV stations in the Philippines and in Hong Kong. She is also a lawyer and migrants rights activist.
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