Philippines: Committee of Overseas Workers Affairs 5th Regular Meeting: February 26, 2014

On February 26th, the House of Representative called the first hearing of 2014 to follow up on deliberations from 2013. The meeting, chaired by congressmen Walden Bello, included the continuation of deliberations on the Sex for Flight scheme, updates from the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) on the anticipated ‘mega recruitment agencies’ in Saudi Arabia, the continued discussion on the alleged violent crackdown of OFWs at the Embassy in Riyadh in 2013, and initial investigations into the disappearance of two Filipino migrant workers.

Sex for Flight

The Sex for Flight scandal involves several labour attachés in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait accused of sexually assaulting and/or harassing female overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) during 2013. These women were fleeing dangerous working conditions from their Saudi Arabian employers and seeking refuge at the Embassy. The Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs (COWA) prompted the investigation and hearings in June 2013 then handed the cases over to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in December 2013. To read more on the background of this issue and a recap of the last COWA hearing on the Sex for Flight scheme, please see: MPs Expose Sex for Flight Scheme

Representing the Department of Justice, Ms. Nancy Lozano spoke on the progress made since the last hearing. To the great disappointment of Congressmen Bello and the COWA team who have been working on these cases, virtually no development has been made thus far. Out of the alleged 25 names of accused officials and staff abroad that COWA handed over to the DOJ, Ms. Lozano only alluded to four names in the current investigation. Since January 2014, the preliminary investigations have been postponed 3 times, with the next date set for March 5th. The reasons cited for continuing to postpone the investigation is due to the absence of several or all of the ‘complainants’, or victims on the dates of the investigation. When pressed as to why they have not been present, Ms. Lozano admitted they may not have their accurate contact information or if they were presently in the country. This called into question the priority the DOJ has placed on the cases since they emerged almost a year ago. Congressmen Bello offered to assist the DOJ in getting in touch with the victims as well as hand over all other information they may require for the advancement of the case. He did, however, remind Ms. Lozano that the ultimate responsibility of these cases does rest with the DOJ.

One of the most adamant recommendations given to the DOJ from the Committee and civil society was to ensure that the five women who came forward with their testimonies would be placed under the witness protection program. To date, this has not materialized. Heated responses came from the Committee, referencing the previous Committee hearing where the Secretary of DOJ Ms. de Lima personally took ownership of the cases promising convictions.

The only charge that has been laid against a Filipino official is against assistant labour attaché Adam Musa, originally posted Riyadh, for his role in covering up the attempted rape of a female Filipino worker by his driver. Found guilty of ‘neglect of duty’, the Department of Overseas Labour and Employment (DOLE) suspended Mr. Musa from his duties for one month and one day, despite the maximum suspension period of 6 months for administrative offenses.

All participants present at the meeting, especially Congressman Bello and Congressman Manalo (Angkla Seafarers Party) were shocked and disappointed by this simple slap on the wrist for such a heinous crime. There was consensus among the group that the case would be reopened and harsher punishments for Mr. Musa sought.

Mega Recruitment Agencies in Saudi Arabia

At the end of the session, Mr. Cacdac had the chance to briefly share updates on the joint committee meetings between Saudi Arabia and the Philippines on the relatively recent MOU between the two countries. He spoke exclusively on the creation of the ‘mega recruitment agencies‘ in Saudi Arabia. During the initial joint committee meeting last year, Saudi officials shared that one of the key areas of reform they were developing was in the area of recruitment to Saudi Arabia. The government is in the process of developing, what they call, mega recruitment agencies in the country. An estimated 100 – 150 million riyals are anticipated into going into these controversial projects.

Mr. Cacdac shared the objectives of this initiative:

  • To ensure a standardized level of legitimacy and professionalism of the recruitment of migrants to Saudi Arabia.
  • To ensure an adequate level of resource allocation to these agencies so they have a higher capacity to assist distressed migrant workers.
  • To step away from simply functioning as placement agencies and also become labour providers.
  • These agencies will stand in as the principle visa sponsors
  • This is anticipated to create more flexibility in terms of transfer of employment for OFWs.
  • Ultimately, take a stronger responsibility for migrant workers in the country.

During the next joint committee meeting on this with Saudi Arabian officials, Mr. Cacdac will present the consolidated concerns of NGOs and civil society, which include concerns over contracts signed in Manila, safety regulations and accessibility of the Philippine mission staff into these spaces.

Investigation into the Disappearance of Two Filipino Migrant Workers

Congresswomen Garcia has launched an investigation in the House of Representatives into the disappearance of two Filipino migrant men. The two men were working as deck hands on a vessel operated by a Dutch firm, Wagenborg, where they were swept overboard during a storm. They were last seen December 5th. Suspicions of foul play or lack of safety regulations have called the need for this investigation. Present during the hearing were the wives of the deceased migrant workers, representatives of Wagenborg, and the House of Representatives.

Criticisms were made over the slow pace of Wagenborg updating the families on progression of the cases. Inquiries were made into the manning agencies that sent the workers abroad. Recommendations were made for the POEA to immediately intervene in these cases.

Alleged Violent Crackdown of OFWs in Saudi Arabia

The alleged violent crackdown took place late last year during the Saudization program, where many migrant workers camped outside the embassy awaiting repatriation. Saudi Arabian authorities were called to disperse an “unruly” crowd, were they allegedly used unnecessary force, the use of stunt guns was cited. Labour attachés are being accused of standing witness to this and not intervening to protect the OFWs. Congressmen Bello called on the Department of Foreign Affairs to take a more proactive role in representing the interests of OFWs abroad. He recommended that an official complaint be lodged with the Saudi Arabian government on this matter. The recall of several of ambassadors was also suggested, however, no action has been taken at this point.

Conclusion and Future Action

Congressmen Bello requested a detailed summary from Mr. Hacdac on the mega recruitment agencies in Saudi Arabia for the next COWA meeting, as well as responses from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) on this matter. Also included in the next hearing will be the continuation of the deliberations on the Sex for Flight scheme and updates on the situation of OWFs in Malaysia given the current crackdown taking place.