MANILA - A task force investigating abuses of overseas Filipino workers in Kuwait has found the existence of a "large-scale" human trafficking trade involving several officials and staff of the Philippine Embassy and the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO).
In a report submitted to the Department of Justice (DOJ) which was obtained by ABS-CBN, the task force said there is a syndicate composed of officials and staff of the Embassy, POLO, and the Overseas Welfare Workers Administration (OWWA).
The report said OFWs in Kuwait claim the human trafficking syndicate has been operating for the past 20 years.
According to the report, at least 10 OFWs from Kuwait have come forward to give their sworn statements to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and more are willing to testify.
The report pointed to the organized system of exploitation of distressed OFWs by some Philippine officials.
The exploitation includes sexual harassment by some Embassy and Labor staff; the settlement of cases of OFWs despite the desire of OFWs to pursue the cases; and sending some OFWs to work for free as domestic helpers for friends and relatives of members of the syndicate.
Stabbed in the vagina
An OFW who has sought help from Embassy officials told of her experience of abuse and exploitation.
"Kris," not her real name, said she decided to escape from her Kuwaiti female employer after the employer stabbed her vagina, inserted pepper inside her private parts and sprayed it with a liquid bleaching product.
She sought the help of then head of the DFA Assistance to Nationals Section Ibrahim Tanandato who assured her a case will be filed.
Kris said her case did not move even after one year of her stay at the POLO-OWWA shelter.
Shortly after, she was surprised when she was informed she lost her case already.
Kris told ABS-CBN that it was a staff member of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait who helped her after learning about her case from another source. It was the American who recommended a human rights lawyer to follow up her case in court. It was only then that the case eventually moved.
“Hindi talaga inasikaso. Sinadyang matalo. Kaya pala sabi ni Tanandato i-settle ko na lang yung kaso,” Kris told ABS-CBN.
Work with no pay
Another OFW, "Sara" (not her real name), also told ABS-CBN she stayed at the OWWA-POLO shelter for eight months to wait for her passport and salary from her employer so she could return home to the Philippines.
Sara said she was made to work as Tanandato’s house helper while waiting for her documents and unpaid salary.
All the while, Tanandato kept telling her that her employer had not paid her back wages since she fled.
She later discovered that her former employer had already paid her unclaimed wages of 1000KD (Kuwaiti dinar, equivalent to about 159,000 pesos) to Philippine labor officials right on the day she left.
Both Kris and Sara are now under the custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and Assistant Secretary Lila Ramos-Shahani.
Shahani said both victims have submitted their affidavits to the NBI to assist in the investigation on the human trafficking in Kuwait.
Tanandato has been recalled back to the country in Febuary 2013, according to the report, due to several complaints from OFWs.
Tanandato is also among several officials recommended for filing of charges by the Kuwait anti-trafficking task force led by Assistant City Prosecutor Darlene Pajarito.
The report recommends the filing of charges of violation of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act and the Migrant Workers Act.
The report noted that the Philippine Mission in Kuwait has been rocked by scandals and controversies such as the Sex-For-Flight controversy, involving offer of a free ticket back to the country in exchange for sexual favors.
Congress has opened an investigation on the Sex-For-Flight controversy, and the Department of Foreign Affairs recalled Philippine Ambasssador to Kuwait Shulan Primavera in November last year.
The report, however, said that though top officials of the Philippine Mission have been recalled or reassigned, the human trafficking syndicate continues its operation.
“The termination of top POLO/OWWA officials resulting from some of these controversies are still deemed insufficient by some. Several have questioned why DOLE terminated only those at the top than specific contractual staff that have long been the subject of numerous complaints (and sworn statements) for abuse and extortion,” the report said.
Entrenched, with diplomatic IDs
The report pointed out that core members of the syndicate composed of volunteers and contractual staff have managed to entrench themselves in Philippine offices in Kuwait.
“It appears that many of the contractual staff of both the DFA and DOLE at the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait may be related to one another, many of whom hail form the same part of the Philippines,” the report stated.
“Having lived there for years, their familiarity with Kuwaiti government and private business personalities (as well as their entrenchment within the Embassy itself) has allowed them profit from passport and visa issuances, authentication of documents, filing of affidavits, marriage contracts, verification of contracts, PAG-IBIG fee collections, case negotiations concerning employee-company disputes, and legal and welfare cases involving the settlement of physical abuse and rape etc.,” the report added.
The probe also found out that OFWs in Kuwait see the human trafficking trade as “a full-sized business enterprise.”
The involved contractual staff and volunteers have even acquired for themselves “diplomatic representation” with ownership of diplomatic IDs and visas.
These documents cannot be acquired without approval of Embassy officials.
“All told, the sworn statements submitted to the NBI by the survivors point to a story of not merely administrative lapses on the part of specific government personnel. They also suggest a tale of labor and sexual trafficking, illegal recruitment, physical and sexual abuse and extortion,” the report stated.
DFA spokesperson Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez assures that they have been investigating the issue on Tanandato and others since last year when several OFWS came forward to complain.
Meantime, ABS-CBN News has tried to reach Tanandato for comment but it has so far been unable to.