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Shocking and outrageous

Publication Date : 31-05-2014


Under old Philippine laws, rape was considered such a heinous crime that it merited the death penalty. When capital punishment was abolished, the state imposed the next harshest judgment: life imprisonment.

Tough laws combining stiff fines and imprisonment have also been drawn up against related crimes such as sexual assault and sexual harassment. The message is clear, at least where Philippine penal law is concerned: Crimes that involve forcible sex, or any attempt of it, have no place in a civilised society and deserve the highest chastisement and condemnation.

More so, one would think, if the perpetrator happens to be a government official, who is sworn to and paid with public money to uphold the law.

The corresponding punishment for such should be twofold: the penalties enumerated by the law, and disqualification from the public office he or she has disgraced. Especially if the nature of that office allows the public official to wield power of the kind that facilitates the abuse and exploitation of those under his or her care.

Labour attaches, for instance—they who are mandated to look after the welfare of the millions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) toiling in far-flung countries under sometimes dangerous, even life-threatening, conditions. These government officials are meant to be the first responders in the task of tending to OFWs who end up raped, abused, or otherwise maltreated by their foreign employers.

The unimaginable thing is for these labour attaches to compound the trauma and suffering of the Filipino workers under their care by abusing them themselves. That kind of behaviour qualifies as heinous by any standard. It deserves severe punishment, to send the signal that such reprehensible conduct will not be tolerated in a government that routinely hails OFWs as modern-day heroes. Certainly, it does not deserve the penalty of mere suspension from office. That is making a mockery of the injustice committed against the OFWs.

Which is what administration officials have done in the case of what is now known as the “sex-for-flight” scandal, in which two Filipino labour officials in Saudi Arabia were accused by a number of Filipino women of having sexually abused or exploited them. Angel, an OFW who covered her face with a scarf in shame when she attended a joint congressional hearing in August 2013, recounted how she fled to the Philippine Overseas Labour Office (Polo) after having been raped by her Arab employer. But instead of being met with assistance and sympathy, she said, Antonio Villafuerte, the assistant labour attache at the Polo in Riyadh, proceeded to ask her questions of a highly offensive nature, such as whether she enjoyed the sex with her employer.

Another woman, Michelle, testified to a graver incident: Villafuerte tried to rape her in the same office, and she had two witnesses to back her claim. She said Villafuerte also sent her lewd messages in Filipino on her mobile phone. When confronted at the hearing about the messages, Villafuerte let loose with a howler: “I wanted to impress that I was fluent in Tagalog but I had no intention of malice.”

Meanwhile, Adam Musa, the labour attache in Al Khobar, was accused by Josie Sales—who was employed as a janitress at the Polo after she quit her work at an abusive Arab household—of criminal negligence and intimidation.

Sales said that Musa’s driver attempted to rape her and many others in the Polo, and that when she complained to Musa, the latter told her he would not sign her release papers unless she agreed to stop talking about her ordeal. To seal the deal, Musa also offered her 10,000 riyals out of his own pocket, she said.

These are charges that make the blood boil. But after its so-called investigation, which did not disprove the women’s statements, what has the Department of Labour and Employment seen fit to impose on its two officials as punishment for their sordid behaviour?

A reprimand and month long suspension from office. A slap on the wrist, as Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello, chair of the House committee on overseas workers’ affairs, has rightly denounced it.

Labour Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz’s defence is that the women’s failure to give further testimony weakened the case. This is shocking and outrageous. The DOLE has all the resources it needs to pursue the case—if it wants to. The sexual assault of OFWs by the officials sworn to protect them is terrible enough, but the failure to punish such lowlifes is even more so.


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