Shahani recommends massive revamp of PH mission in Kuwait

By Henry Omaga Diaz and Chi Almario-Gonzalez, ABS-CBN Investigative Team.

Posted at Jan 21 2014 08:25 PM | Updated as of Feb 11 2014 03:48 AM

MANILA - The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) said they recalled last year the officials and staff linked to the alleged human trafficking trade in Kuwait.

In a message to ABS-CBN News, DFA Spokesperson Raul Hernandez said among those “disciplinarily recalled” last March 2013 was Mr. Daligdig “Jack” Tanandato.

Some OFWs have complained of abuse and exploitation by Tanandato, the former head of the DFA Assistance to Nationals Section, among other embassy staff.

“We did this to make way for a thorough investigation of the complaints against him. He is now facing charges because of those complaints. As of now, we have not received allegations of sexual nature against him,” Hernandez said in the message.

Hernandez also assured DFA “will not tolerate any form of abuse or corruption on OFWs.”

Hernandez also stressed the DFA has not received any copy of the DOJ task force’s report.

“We will defer comment on its findings until we have read the full report,” he added.

But Assistant Secretary Lila Ramos-Shahani of the Human Development and Poverty Reduction Cabinet Cluster said though some Philippine Embassy and Labor Officers have been recalled, it appears human trafficking continues in Kuwait.

“The top level has been removed but this syndicate is so deeply entrenched, the ones in the lower level are still moving,” said Shahani, who is involved in the task force probe.

Shahani, who has interviewed many distressed workers from Kuwait, has submitted a comprehensive report to Department of Social and Welfare Secretary (DSWD) Secretary Dinky Soliman and Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Leila de Lima, co-chair of the Inter-agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT).

Just last December, a distressed worker came home to the Philippines and told ABS-CBN News that the abuses continue.

"Sonia," not her real name, was a former volunteer lady guard at the POLO-OWWA shelter in Kuwait for two years after she escaped from her employer.

Sonia, who was a volunteer guard at the POLO-OWWA center that houses distressed OFWs, told ABS-CBN that she has witnessed several OFWs being allowed to leave the shelter without records of their trips outside, a violation of the rules of the shelter.

“Yung iba ibinabalik. Yung iba, hindi na ibinabalik,” she said.

Sonia said a local hire in POLO-OWWA brings some of the distressed workers to an apartment where they are made to do whatever is asked of them.

Another OFW, Agnes (not her real name) told ABS-CBN News that she experienced being taken out of the shelter and sent to an Arab employer supposedly to work as a domestic helper.

Agnes said the first thing her “new employer” requested was for a massage. But eventually the employer asked her to perform sexual acts.

“Wala po akong magawa kundi sumunod,” Agnes said.

Reports of human trafficking in Kuwait involving Philippine and Labor officials and staff have been circulating among OFWs and the local community there for some 20 years.

In her report to the IACAT October last year, Shahani said she believes the syndicate involved in human and sex trafficking can be dismantled only if the DFA and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) implement a massive revamp of the Philippine Mission In Kuwait, including the staff, volunteers and those hired locally.

“The DFA and DOLE might consider not renewing the contracts of long-time local hires and staff (including officials) of the Embassy or POLO-OWWA who have been the subject of repeated complaints,” she said.

Shahani recommended that the contracts of staff hired locally from Kuwait should be limited to five years.

“Family relations (and therefore the possibility of nepotism) should be strictly disallowed,” she added.

In the report, Shahani identified the composition of the syndicate as a core group of officials, staff and local hires from the Embassy and the POLO-OWWA who are related to each other.

But to completely address the grave situation of distressed OFWs in Kuwait, Shahani said, the DFA, DOLE, DOJ and Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) need to work together and do more.

Shahani recommends the deployment of social workers, paralegals, police officers to Philippine missions assigned in human trafficking “hotspots” for the OFWs.

The identified “hotspots” for OFWs are the Middle East, North America and Asia.

She said the distressed workers should not only receive legal assistance, but also proper medical, psychological and job support when they finally return to the country.

“It is respectfully suggested that all member agencies within IACAT (Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking) consider the contribution of part of their Gender and Development (GAD) budget towards the creation of a Secretariat that spans the needs of these workers all the way from social protection to prosecution,” said Shahani.

Shahani believes there is also a need to plan a bigger space for shelters of distressed OFWs in Kuwait since the current set-up is “inadequate.”

“To retain professional boundaries, a separation between the living areas of runaway Filipino workers and the work areas of Embassy/DOLE staff is vital to maintain privacy and security,” she said.

In her report, Shahani found that the cramped spaces and lack of clear separation in quarters have led to abuse and exploitation of the distressed workers.

“There are credible reports that, before June 2011, food and shelter for women sexually desired by staff or their family members (often the sons of Embassy staff) received better rooms, food and treatment,” she added.

Shahani said more than 10 survivors of the alleged human trafficking trade in the Kuwait have given their testimonies to the National Bureau of Investigation to build a case against those involved.

And more are willing to testify once they return to the country, she said.