The news that distressed Filipino workers in the Middle East were being sexually exploited by Philippine embassy officials in at least three countries hit home last week; it is a wrenching, sordid story that reminds us that evil is real, not some movie genre fantasy—and that it preys on the most powerless, the most vulnerable.
Walden Bello, the Akbayan party-list representative who broke the news about penniless Filipino women workers abroad forced to give sexual favors in exchange for a flight back to the Philippines, offered a moral calculus which we think many Filipinos will agree with: “Sexual abuse on our womenfolk perpetrated by their hosts in a foreign country is an awful crime. But there is something more awful, and that is their exploitation by their own compatriots in that strange land. And it is triply terrible when they are exploited sexually by government officials who are supposed to protect them.”
All the horrifying details still have to be verified, but Bello accused two labor officials attached to the embassies in Jordan and Kuwait of running prostitution rings in all but name, and an official of the Department of Foreign Affairs assigned in Syria of sexually harassing another distressed Filipino worker.
This predatory behavior is outrageous, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. The investigations began by both the DFA and the Department of Labor and Employment (to which the labor officials report) should be pursued with rigor and dispatch—the truth must be known, sooner rather than later, not only because the two departments are in a state of turmoil, but because an entire country now dependent on remittances from overseas workers is demoralized.
The immediate sense of horror and disgust that greeted the news can be explained in part by a form of familiarity: Many Filipinos easily understand how Filipino workers can be sexually exploited by government officials.
It is need that drives Filipinos to seek work abroad, even in inhospitable climates or unfriendly cultures; that is the uncomfortable truth behind the government’s four-decade-old labor export policy. It is also need that forces many of them to seek shelter and protection from abusive employers with the government’s embassies and consulates, and need (such as the lack of money for an airplane ticket) that may trap some of them into prostitution. In this triply terrible state of need, they see government officials as the source of power, and themselves as powerless.
It is important to note, however, that Bello did not meet with any of the victims; he has repeatedly said that he got his information from “unimpeachable sources” within the DFA and DOLE.
This may explain why, a week after his startling exposé, no victim has yet come forward to corroborate his charges against labor officials in Jordan, Kuwait, and Syria.
Four victims, including three under the care of the ABS-CBN TV network, did come forward with their sorrowful sex-for-repatriation stories, but the criminal acts they complained of happened in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
When the first victim, identified only as “Michelle,” told the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration she had given sexual favors to a labor official in Riyadh, the DFA immediately widened the scope of its investigation to include Saudi Arabia. The day after, more embassies were included. To date, 11 ambassadors from the Middle East have been summoned back to Manila, to take part in the inquiry.
We think this is a good sign, as is Foreign Secretary
Albert del Rosario’s assertion that “verbal complaints” in lieu of formal written charges can be used to jump-start the investigative process. But would these be enough of a confidence-building campaign to convince more victims to come forward and share their experiences, even at the cost of their own privacy, their own hard-won peace of mind?
Vice President Jejomar Binay, the presidential adviser on overseas workers’ concerns, has already issued a statement calling on victims to file complaints, with assistance from his office. President Aquino should add his voice to the chorus of reassurance. It’s going to be a long, hard road ahead for those who decide to speak up; and to keep the predators away, they need all the support they can get.