'Sex-for-flight' scandal probers off to Kuwait

By Mayen Jaymalin, The Philippine Star

Posted at Jun 29 2013 08:39 AM | Updated as of Jun 29 2013 04:39 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The probe team created by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to investigate the alleged sex-for-repatriation scheme in government-run shelters in the Middle East will leave for Kuwait today on the first leg of its mission.

After gathering evidence in Kuwait, the three-member panel will fly to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and then to Jordan.

The probe team will report to Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz on July 15.

Probe panel chair Leah Fortuna yesterday said that upon returning from their two-week mission to interview Filipino workers in the three Middle East countries, they will revalidate all the evidence that they have gathered.

“We still have a lot of things to do after our mission from the Middle East, that is why it would not be easy for us to quickly complete the investigation,” she said.

Fortuna said they will also summon past victims of sexual harassment and other abuses allegedly committed by Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) officials and personnel.

“Even if the incidents happened years ago, their testimonies will still be useful in our investigation, so the panel will issue the summons upon our return,” Fortuna said.

“Any group that wants to bring out witnesses or those who have information about the issue, we welcome them. We will ask them to appear before the panel,” Fortuna added.

She issued the statement after the Blas Ople Policy Center reported that two former overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who had been sexually harassed by labor officials in the past are also set to file formal charges.

The probe team was formed after Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello accused acting labor attaché to Jordan Mario Antonio, a Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) personnel in Syria and a POLO staff in Kuwait of engaging in sex-for-repatriation activities.

While no complainants have surfaced to affirm Bello’s allegations, three distressed Filipino workers came out in the media to accuse assistant labor attaché to Riyadh Antonio Villafuerte of sexual harassment.

One of the workers identified as “Michelle” also charged Villafuerte of offering her to an Egyptian national.

But another Filipina worker surfaced and vouched for the good track record and behavior of Villafuerte as a labor officer.

Villafuerte has been recalled and is expected to report to the investigating panel immediately upon his return from Riyadh.

In a television interview, the labor officer denied the charges against him.

Baldoz met yesterday with Bello to discuss the alleged sex-for-flight activities.

The labor chief said that she assured the lawmaker that they are looking into the allegations against labor officers in Jordan and Kuwait despite the absence of complainants.

Livelihood assistance

Meanwhile, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) yesterday said the agency is ready to provide alternative livelihood and other assistance to the three alleged victims of Villafuerte.

“We assured them that when they are already comfortable, they can come back to us and we will provide them the assistance that they need,” OWWA chief Carmelita Dimzon said yesterday.

Dimzon said she also offered the victims psycho-social debriefing assistance to help them cope with and recover from the alleged ordeal they suffered while staying in the government-run halfway house in Riyadh.

The three workers previously went to the OWWA office to seek possible livelihood assistance as well as scholarships for their children.

Social welfare attaches

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), on the other hand, will deploy six social welfare attachés in Abu Dhabi-Dubai, Kuwait, Jeddah, Hong Kong, Korea, and Qatar to help distressed OFWs, as well as assist victims of human trafficking.

The new posts will be in addition to the two social welfare attaché posts in Malaysia and Riyadh. – With Rainier Allan Ronda