Nothing drives home the depth of shame one is feeling than the urge to cover his or her face and be unrecognizable to the world. But to do this act not in a foreign country but in one’s own, among fellow citizens and countrymen, suggests not just a sense of humiliation but also of abject degradation. So what would drive three overseas Filipino workers to shroud their faces in heavy veils and respond only to their first names when they faced a joint hearing of the Senate blue ribbon and labor committees last Thursday?
Angel, Analiza and Michelle all wept when they recounted their experiences in the hands, not of their Arab employers in Saudi Arabia, which were harrowing enough, but of Filipino labor officials assigned to minister to distressed OFWs like them in the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (Polo) in Riyadh. Angel, who said she fled to Polo after having been raped by her Arab employer, was not met with assistance and commiseration by assistant labor attaché Antonio Villafuerte. She said what greeted her was a barrage of unthinkably offensive questions from Villafuerte, stated in Filipino: Was she really raped? How was she attacked? Was it pleasurable to have sex with her employer? Was he well endowed?
Michelle said Villafuerte also attempted to rape her in the same office last May, an incident witnessed by two other Filipinos who would, she said, corroborate her story. But Villafuerte apparently didn’t stop at sexual assault; his harassment extended to text messages to Michelle, one of which she showed to senators. In it, the labor official told the girl that he had bought her underwear, but using startlingly crude language.
Villafuerte didn’t deny that he had sent the text message, but claimed that he was not being malicious because he learned the words in school in his Filipino subjects. Asked by Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile whether he would use such language with his wife, Villafuerte answered in the affirmative. “I hear those words when we’re fooling around.” And more: “I wanted to impress that I was fluent in Tagalog, but I had no intention of malice.”
No one in the Senate panels reminded Villafuerte that impressing OFWs in distress with his fluency in Filipino is not part of his job. His job is to help them get through their ordeal of trying mightily to adopt to a different culture, perhaps after hocking their life savings to pay for the processing fees and buy a plane ticket, and then seeing their dreams of earning a decent wage for their families dissolve in terror in the households of abusive employers. Villafuerte’s office was supposed to serve as a haven for his displaced, distraught countrymen. Instead, if the allegations are true, he used the power of his position to exploit their sense of helplessness and grind them into further humiliation.
And he is apparently not alone. At the Senate hearing, Adam Musa, the labor attaché in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, was also accused of criminal negligence by 28-year-old Grace Victoria Sales, at the very least. Sales said that, after fleeing her abusive employer, she was employed as a janitress in Polo, where Musa’s driver attempted to rape her. When she complained, Musa threatened not to sign her release papers until she agreed to keep silent about her plight. She said she was also offered 10,000 riyals in hush money from Musa’s pocket.
Where does the government get officials like Villafuerte and Musa? Between their protestations of innocence and the women’s stories, it’s not a stretch to think that these women would not risk going public and compounding their sense of shame unless they were telling the truth. Sales, in fact, said that of the more than 100 escaped OFWs at Polo, about 70 percent have been victims of abuse by Musa’s driver. How long has this sordid state of affairs been going on, and if Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz is unaware of it, why?
According to the Department of Labor and Employment, about 800 OFWs are currently housed at welfare centers in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Libya, Syria, Qatar, Oman and Jordan. What is taking the Aquino administration so long to repatriate them? Clearly, the longer they stay there, the more they are potentially subject to exploitation and abuse.
If Villafuerte, Musa et al. are guilty, then in the just scheme of things, they should be the ones covering their faces in shame, not the OFWs they were sworn to protect—but who, in a cruel twist of fate, ended up needing protection from them.