‘Embassy staff prostituting OFWs'

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine embassy staff in various posts in the Middle East are sexually abusing and prostituting distressed overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).

This was disclosed by Akbayan Rep Walden Bello, chairman of the House committee on overseas workers' affairs, on Tuesday, June 18. 

Branding them as "predators," Bello identified the officials as:

"Sexual abuse on our womenfolk perpetrated by their hosts in a foreign country is an awful crime. But there is something more awful, and that is their exploitation by their own compatriots in that strange land," Bello said in a press conference. 

Bello gathered the information through interviews with department and embassy insiders, affidavits of witnesses, and confidential reports.

"I am asking [Foreign Affairs] Secretary Albert Del Rosario and [Labor] Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, two individuals that I respect greatly, to move immediately to recall the officials I have identified, dismiss them from government service, and criminally prosecute them," Bello said. 

Antonio and Marquez are accused of running "prostitution rings" in Jordan and Kuwait, respectively. Antonio supposedly sold at least one female OFW for as high US$1,000 (about P40,000) for sex, according to Bello. 

"Kim," on the other hand, was supposedly caught in January "in an intimate act with a female OFW at the embassy shelter for distressed OFWs. 

Bello said these "predators" should be "stripped of their positions," recalled from their posts, and prosecuted in the Philippines. 

Bello's exposé is based on his interviews with "unimpeachable sources" at the DFA and Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). These sources "asked us to expose the criminals in their ranks because their acts are giving their agencies a bad name," Bello added.

The DFA and DOLE officials are in touch with the victims, said Bello. He is asking the agencies to refer the victims to his committee. But Bello said he understands that the victims are afraid. He maintained that the activities of the "predators" are "open secret."

Bello was investigating reports on "sex-for-flight" schemes in the Middle East when he discovered these other sexual abuses in other posts in the region. In the said scheme, embassy officials supposedly promise victims they will be prioritized in repatriation in exchange for sexual favors.

In response to the "sex-for-flight" scheme in the Middle East, DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said, "To date, we have not received any report or complaint from alleged victims. Our head of embassy in Kuwait is looking into this news report and we would like to ask the alleged victims to come forward and file a formal complaint against the perpetrators."

DOLE Secretary Baldoz issued Administrative Order No. 239 to form an investigating team to "get to the bottom" of the sex-for-fly activities by POLO officers in Kuwait.

Baldoz warned that she will file charges against any DOLE official or employee who will be proven to have violated their oath as public servants, whether they are in the Philippines or abroad.

Predator 1: 'Kim' of Syria

Bello initially referred to the 3 embassy officials as "predators." Prodded by the media, he eventually named them. 

"Predator One" is "Kim," a member of the DFA's Augmentation Team at the embassy in Damascus. He is allegedly engaged in the "sex-for-flight" scheme. 

"At midnight on Jan 1, 2013, Predator One was caught by several witnesses in an intimate act with a female OFW at the embassy shelter for distressed workers at the poolside of the embassy. Three of the many witnesses filed affidavits detailing the incident," Bello said. 

There are rules against embassy officials fraternizing with their wards, the distressed OFWs housed at the shelter.

"The January 1 incident was but the latest of several violations of the rule by Predator One since embassy personnel claim he had engaged previously in intimate relationships with at least 4 distressed OFWs," Bello added. 

He lamented that "Kim" was only given a "tap on the wrist" punishment. He was supposedly ordered to attend modules on gender sensitivity and required to secure a certification that he completed it. 

"We cannot understand the reason" for treating "KIm" with kid gloves, Bello said.

Predator 2: Antonio in Jordan

Assistant labor attaché in Jordan, Mario Antonio, allegedly sells OFWs for $1,000 a night of sexual services.

"Members of the embassy, many OFWs, and others accuse this man of letting some of his wards at the OFW shelter – the Filipino Workers Resource Center – out at night to service the sexual needs of wealthy Palestinian men in Amman," Bello said.

"Witnesses claim that he charges as much as $1,000 a night for the services of one OFW. He is, in effect, running a prostitution ring, using distressed OFWs," Bello said.

"Yet our embassy is paralyzed. The labor attaché refuses to act. The ambassador says she cannot act because [Antonio] has not been caught in the act, though she admits she has not posted observers to watch the goings-on at the shelter from 11 pm to 1 am, when , she has been told, he lets his wards out to sell sex," Bello added.

The congressman added the government of Jordan supposedly wants to declare Antonio "persona non grata."

Antonio also allegedly operated the same scheme when he was posted in Beirut and Tokyo. 

Predator 3: Marquez in Kuwait

Blas Marquez is a local hire or a contractual employee of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Kuwait. 

Quoting a confidential report, Bello said Marquez "has long been involved in 'sex-for-hire' in the FWRC. There have been many complaints against him but he eluded the dragnet because he is a townmate of now disgraced Ambassador Shulan Primavera."

Primavera was recently recalled for allegedly molesting a distressed OFW.

Marquez's supposed "accomplice" in the "sex-for-hire" scheme – Assistant Labor Attache Ofelia de Castro – was recalled in June 2011. But Bello said Marquez is continuing the operations. 

"Apparently, POLO officials have to condone Predator 3 because he might spill the beans as he knows many unlawful incidents in POLO," Bello added.

Bello said they will continue to probe the issue. Unless re-assigned, Bello serves as chairman of the committee on overseas workers' affairs until June 30. 

Meanwhile, DOLE's Baldoz named the members of the all-woman, all-lawyer investigative team: Leah Fortuna of the Office of the Secretary, as the chairperson; Ophelia Almenario of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration; and Rosemarie G. Duquez of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.

The labor chief called on the victims and those who may have information on the sex-for-flight modus operandi to get in touch with the investigating team at Manila telephone numbers (02) 527-3000 local 705, (02) 551-1560, (02) 551-6641, (02) 722-1144, and (02) 722-1155.

Palace reacts

Meanwhile, the DFA, according to Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte, has already stepped in and has instructed the embassy head in Kuwait to act on the complaint.

“To this date, we have not received any formal complaint from the alleged victims which is why we are encouraging those with information or those who have been victimized by these alleged practices to come forward and to file complaints because the DFA is more than willing to act on them,” Valte said.

The Palace is calling on OFWs who have been victims of the scam to come forward and file a complaint. Earlier this week, an unidentified female OFW who was among a group of 46 house helpers deported from the Kuwait Deportation Center, complained about an “embassy official” who allegedly demanded a sexual favor in exchange for her repatriation. – Rappler.com