Beginning in June 2013, the Philippines has drawn international scrutiny with the Sex for Flight scheme. Congressmen Walden Bello exposed the alleged scheme where Filipino Mission officials in Saudi Arabia allegedly promised repatriation for female overseas Filipino workers in exchange for sexual favors.
Thus far, five OFWs have given their testimonies on their experiences of abuse in Saudi Arabia. These include allegations of being ‘pimped out’, offered cash in exchange for sex, and verbal, sexual and physical abuse. At the time of the incidents, each of the women had fled to the Filipino embassy in search of protection from abusive or dangerous working conditions at their Saudi employers’ hands. These allegations shook the nation, as thousands of Filipino’s are employed in Saudi Arabia and look to the embassies as a place of refuge.
This investigation became the tip of the iceberg when further testimonies from OFWs emerged from Kuwait and Jordan of prostitution rings being run out of Philippine embassies. Testimonies are emerging from both countries of mission officials running exploitative, highly organized sex trafficking schemes, where female OFWs are ‘pimped out’ to wealthy men in Amman and Kuwait.
Congressmen Walden Bello, Member of Parliament and Chair of the Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs (COWA) prompted the investigation in June when he was tipped off by the migrant community in Saudi Arabia of the abuse. Within the month, a three man investigation composed of representatives from the Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE), Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), and the Overseas Worker Welfare Administration (OWWA) were sent to Saudi Arabia to identify the perpetrators. The department of foreign affairs and the House of Representatives Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs (COWA) also conducted parallel investigations. Mr. Bello, with the support of COWA, has been instrumental in bringing this case to the public eye and ensuring that cases were filed against the perpetuators. He brought forth damning evidence and testimonies to national newspapers, putting pressure on the courts to begin hearings. Members of the House of Representatives played an imperative role in facilitating the investigations and organizing legal action against the accused.
Hearings have been taking place since July 19th, 2013, organized and hosted by the House of Representatives, demonstrating their commitment to these cases. Present during these hearings are the accused, victims, congressmen and various members of governmental bodies of the Philippines.
Since the investigation began in June, there has been extensive collaboration, and tensions, between the different departments of the Philippine government. The Ministry of Labour and Employment have recalled several of their officials working in Saudi Arabia and have conducted investigations regarding the alleged incidents. In addition to this, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have also conducted investigations. After collecting evidence, conducting interviews and building a case, the House of Representative has turned over the investigation to the Department of Justice on December 11th. Secretary of DOJ, Leila De Lima, attended the hearing, thanking all parties involved for their commitment to this case and vowed to bring convictions to those accused.
In the last hearing of 2013 (Dec. 11), Congressmen Bello summarized the progression on the cases: the driver of the assistant labour attaché in Riyadh who was accused of attempted rape is now in jail; charges have been made against mission officials in Jordan and Kuwait; the House of Representatives is currently strengthening their case against officials of the mission in Al Khobar; the Department of Justice has officially taken over the investigation and will be taking custody of the victims, including providing them with witness protection; the DOJ has launched the ‘Kuwait Anti-Trafficking Task Force’ to investigate allegations of the prostitution ring in Kuwait.
The DOJ now has full responsibility of the investigation. After recommendations made, especially from COWA, the DOJ and the National Bureau of Investigation will be pursuing criminal charges against all accused in Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Congressmen Bello and COWA have expressed their confidence that the DOJ will see this case through to the final convictions.
Measures to prevent these types of crimes from taking place in the future are being legislated. Upon recommendations from Congressmen Bello, the DOLE will appoint more female workers to work in labour attaches in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. The rationale behind this is women working in foreign labour attaches will understand the situation of distressed female workers on more intimate level than their male counterparts. Other accepted recommendations included forwarding all requests for repatriation tickets to the heads of POLO and requiring receiving agencies to act on these requests within 48 hours. A further recommendation stipulates that migrant workers in distress will be prohibited from working full or part time in the embassy.
These cases have shown the extraordinary commitment of parliamentarians to fight for the justice of migrant worker rights. We will update you on the progress of the cases.