Post-Mauro case: DFA yields to POEA jurisdiction over diplomats' household staff

Theresa Martelino-Reyes, VERA Files

Posted at Apr 15 2021 11:07 PM

The controversial case of former Philippine ambassador to Brazil Marichu Mauro has been resolved for over a month now, but the fallout from the messy affair continues to haunt the men and women of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). 

Mauro's case involving the physical abuse of her household helper late last year triggered a review of the DFA's policy on the hiring of private staff by diplomats to avoid a repeat of similar appalling incidents. 

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin told VERA Files that diplomats and other DFA personnel assigned abroad may still employ household staff from the Philippines but processing of their contracts would now have to be done with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and no longer through the DFA as was the case before the Mauro incident.

"They can but the approving authority is POEA. I SURRENDERED DFA authority to DOLE. So DFA cannot be be blamed again. I must protect the institution from itself. This is best all around," he said in Twitter message to VERA Files.

Locsin added: "POEA is accommodating but salaries now $600 or higher delisted in bank accounts on time. POEA will have access to bank accounts. So I am told."

The Secretary, however, declined VERA Files' request for a copy of the DFA-POEA agreement.

Meanwhile, VERA Files learned that the foreign office has put on hold all requests by DFA personnel to bring "private" and household staff with them on their overseas assignments.
 
"Walang bumabalik. Kaya ang sabi huwag na iakyat muna sa OSEC (Office of the Secretary). Pending na muna, so talagang wala. Talagang zero (Nothing is coming back. So, we are told not to send anything to OSEC. Pending, really nothing. Really zero)," a DFA source confirmed. 

Impact on DFA

Delays in the processing of requests have made the situation difficult for the country's diplomats who regularly host receptions in their official residence and rely on their household staff for assistance as some have suffered from the ongoing pandemic. A number of Philippine envoys have been infected by COVID-19, including former ambassador to Lebanon Bernardita Catalla, who died from complications of the disease in April 2020. 

DFA officers and personnel who spoke to VERA Files said the proposed arrangement with POEA would require additional paper work, but they would comply since it would define more clearly the employee-employer relationship and give more protection for domestic helpers. However, they expressed hope that the guidelines on the new policy would be released soon so they can prepare the necessary documents and submit all requirements quickly.

Before the Mauro incident, foreign service officers (FSOs), who hold diplomatic passports, were entitled to bring two "private staff" or "household members" with them to their overseas posts. DFA employees who are not FSOs can sponsor only one. 

These household staff hold official passports, but unlike FSOs, do not enjoy diplomatic immunity. They are not considered overseas workers and are exempt from the rigorous and time-consuming hiring process of POEA. Instead, their contracts with DFA sponsors, who are considered private employers and pay salaries from their own pockets, were approved by the foreign secretary. DFA sponsors must submit an affidavit of undertaking and a proposed contract with their household staff whose overseas stint is co-terminus with them.

Changes in the rules on recruitment of household help have been revised through the years, in some cases as a result of complaints about treatment by diplomats. It was noted, for example, that the United States imposed stricter rules as a result of the 2008 case filed by a household helper of former permanent representative to the United Nations Lauro Baja. 

Marichu Baoanan accused the envoy, his wife, and daughter of trafficking, forced labor, peonage and slavery. For three months, Baoanan said she served as the Baja family's domestic helper in New York, was forced to work at least 18 hours a day, seven days a week for a measly pay of 6 cents per hour. The civil suit was settled in 2011. 

The Mauro case

Outrage over the sensational Mauro case once again prompted a revision of DFA's policy, in addition to an investigation into allegations of abuse committed by the ambassador on several occasions in her home in Brazil as shown in footages leaked to the media. 

Amid the public outcry, Locsin - who had described Mauro as a "fine diplomat" -- released a statement on October 28, 2020 to assure the public that the DFA was "giving this matter its utmost attention, and true to its mission of protecting the rights and promoting the welfare of overseas Filipino workers." 

"Yung Senado naging mainit sa DFA. Nilahat na nila. Talagang naghigpit na tuloy (The Senate became hot on the DFA. They generalized [the whole issue]. So they're really strict now)," according to a DFA source. 

Last month, President Rodrigo Duterte announced Mauro's dismissal from the service. In addition, Duterte forfeited all pension benefits she had earned from the 26 years she served as a diplomat and forever barred her from public office. 

The disgraced diplomat has appealed to the President for a reconsideration.

Locsin recalled Mauro from her post when the unsavory case blew up first in a Brazilian newspaper and then in the local media late last year. The beleaguered ambassador was charged administratively on November 9, 2020 although the domestic helper, Leonila de Ocampo, who had by then returned to the Philippines, did not file a formal complaint. 

In a statement released the day after Duterte's announcement, Mauro decried the "harsh decision" which, she said, left her with no choice but to go to court for an "unbiased judgment." She accused the DFA of railroading the case and yielding to pressure -- what she described as the "disjointed cacophony of voices crying out for mob justice," to which the foreign office and politicians had contributed.

Mauro said her "sense of betrayal runs deep" because she trusted the DFA's administrative system to follow prescribed procedures in probing her case, but the panel "totally disregarded" the evidence she submitted. 
 
While the envoy expressed regret about the incident and the shame it had brought to the DFA, she pointed out that she had made amends and asked for forgiveness from Ocampo, who had granted it. Mauro also noted that the video footages were secretly and illegally obtained by Brazilian local hires, doctored and taken out of context to publicly embarrass her. 

Among Mauro's colleagues at the DFA, there is a mixture of sympathy, support, and regret about the events that led to the end of her career. Most, however, would like to move on even as they have to deal with the ramifications of the unfortunate affair that they hope would exclude having to give up their household help whose rights, they agree, should be protected and honored. 

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")

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