“At this point, it’s clear that there was abuse of authority, there is abuse of women. Whatever you may call it, it definitely requires strong measures and strong disciplinary action and a revamp of the system of treating OFWs abroad.” – Senator Teofisto Guingona III
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA –A Philippine overseas labor official who is being linked to the “sex for fly scheme” said the allegations were merely a result of “light moment jokes.” But senators, during a hearing on Aug. 15, found it hard to believe.
“I am not inclined to believe (Labor attache Adam) Musa and even (Assistant labor attache Antonio) Villafuerte. I would rather believe the statements of the victims. It is very clear to me that we need to replace the officials deployed there,” Sen. Teofisto “TG” Guingona III, chair of the Blue Ribbon Committee, said in a Manila Bulletin report.
Antonio Villafuerte, the assistant labor attaché to Saudi Arabia, has been implicated in the sex for fly scandal after three stranded overseas Filipino workers Angel, Annaliza and Michelle, not their real names, exposed before the media that Villafuerte made verbal sexual advances and offered “part-time work” so they could earn money for their tickets to go back to Manila.
Villafuerte, during the height of the controversy, denied these allegations in television interviews.
The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), for its part, along with concerned agencies, conducted an investigation. On July 31, 2013, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said DOLE is already wrapping up its investigation, adding that Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz sent a fact finding team to the Middle East to verify the allegations against its own officials.
“At this point, it’s clear that there was abuse of authority, there is abuse of women. Whatever you may call it, it definitely requires strong measures and strong disciplinary action and a revamp of the system of treating OFWs abroad,” Guingona said in a separate report.
During the joint hearing by the Senate blue ribbon and labor committees on Aug. 15, Villafuerte denied Michelle’s accusation, saying that he was not in the Philippine Overseas Labor Office on May 18, when the supposed abuse took place.
Michelle, in a previous Bulatlat.com article, said Villafuerte tried to pimp her to his Egyptian friend to buy her ticket to go back to Manila. On May 18, 2013, she added that the labor official also forcibly kissed her, touched her breasts, and attempted to lift her abaya (clothes) inside the POLO office in Saudi Arabia.
Michelle, during the hearing, removed her veil and told Villafuerte, “Do you recognize me now Mr. Villafuerte? Can you now remember what you did to me? Do not lie.”
During the hearing, Michelle also showed the senators a text message from Villafuerte that read, “andyan na yung salungki at salungsu mo.” (Your panty and bra is there.) Salungki and salungsu are not commonly used by Filipinos in referring to underwear of women. The suffix “ki” supposedly refers to vagina while “su” refers to breast. These terms are considered vulgar.
Villafuerte said in reports that the text message did not mean anything and that he simply translated underwear to Tagalog, adding that he hailed from Guiguinto, Bulacan.
When Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile asked him to justify the use of obscene terms, he said he finished accounting and law. Villafuerte also said that he heard and used these terms during light moments and wanted to impress OFWs that he is fluent in Tagalog but had no ill intentions.
“As a lawyer, you know what an underwear means right? Can’t you use that term to denote things in proper description? You’re a different kind of lawyer, you do not think that you are talking to a woman,” Enrile said.
Enrile was quoted in a Philippine Daily Inquirer report admonishing Villafuerte: “You are supposed to be courteous. As a diplomat, did you not consider that you were talking to a fellow Filipino? You knew she was going through so much already and still you did that to her?”
Aside from Michelle, Angel, another victim, also recounted her experience with Villafuerte. Angel was raped by her employer and sought the refuge of government officials. She recounted during the senate hearing that when she first visited the POLO office, Villafuerte introduced her aloud as a rape victim, which elicited laughter from the staff.
In a Philippine Star report, Villafuete said the victims of the reported sex for fly scheme were only trying to get back at him and stressed that his 30 years as a public servant was spotless from intrigues.
“They may not be satisfied because like I said, with so many problems in Riyadh, there are a lot of people who come to me and there are certain things that are beyond my control,” Villafuerte said.
But Enrile said, “Do you think that’s her motivation? A woman with her demeanor, the way she is talking here before this audience and before the Filipino public, would expose herself to this kind of shame and abuse, exposing what was done to her honor as a woman?”
Sen. Cynthia Villar, for her part, said in reports that there seems to be a sense of truth in the statements given by the victims.
Connie Bragas-Regalado of Migrante International said migrant rights advocates welcomed the investigation of the senate and the seeming sympathy of senators toward the victims. She told Bulatlat.com that the recent hearing was a validation of statements they have heard themselves when they interviewed the three victims of the sex for fly scheme.
“No matter how hard Villafuerte tries to deny it, the statement of the three victims are more than enough,” Regalado said.
Regalado said it is also clear how embassy officials were seemingly trying to hide the truth. She said that it would seem, based on the officials’ accounts, that they are not reporting what is happening to officials they are working directly for.
Regalado said the senate, too, should issue a subpoena to Ambassador Ezzedin Tago because “all these things are happening under his watch.”
Regalado, however, said the senate has yet to tackle why Filipinos abroad are vulnerable to these kinds of abuses, adding that they have long raised similar cases before government offices but were ignored.
She added that stranded Filipinos in Saudi Arabia are very vulnerable to these abuses because of the Saudization Policy, a Saudi government policy that requires companies there to hire their nationals who should comprise at least 10 percent of their total work force. The said policy has resulted to crackdowns and many undocumented Filipinos, mostly victims of abuses from their employees, want to be repatriated as soon as possible.