MANILA, Philippines - Under oath before the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, assistant labor attaché Antonio Villafuerte denied all the allegations against him made by three former overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) of inappropriate behavior and attempted rape.
Villafuerte, of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he was a good man who worked hard to serve the country and was sympathetic to the plight of OFWs, especially those who were abused by their employers.
But many of the senators present during yesterday’s hearing on the so-called sex-for-flight scandal found it hard to believe that Villafuerte was as innocent as he wanted them to believe.
For them, the language Villafuerte used betrayed the type of person he is, especially how he treated women.
During yesterday’s hearing, one of the victims known only as Michelle showed a text message that Villafuerte sent her when she was still staying at the Bahay Kalinga or halfway house operated by the Philippine government in Riyadh, as proof of her claims against him.
In the text message supposedly sent by Villafuerte to Michelle, the labor official informed her that he had bought her “salungsu” and “salungki” as she requested.
The two terms supposedly used by Villafuerte were not words commonly used by Filipinos to refer to underwear and were, in fact, considered vulgar.
Both Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile and Sen. Jinggoy Estrada were aghast at the content of the text message, which Villafuerte did not deny.
Villafuerte said the “salungsu” or brassiere and “salungki” or panty were words that he learned in school in his Filipino subjects.
Enrile admonished Villafuerte for his behavior, which he said belied his being discourteous in spite of his position as a diplomat.
“You are supposed to be courteous. As a diplomat, did you not consider that you were talking to a fellow Filipino? You knew that she was going through so much already and still you did that to her,” Enrile told Villafuerte.
Villafuerte replied he had no ill intention when he used those words with Michelle, but Enrile said this was unacceptable.
Asked by Enrile if he would use such language with his wife, Villafuerte said that he would and had in fact done so during light moments.
“I hear those words when we’re fooling around. I wanted to impress that I was fluent in Tagalog but I had no intention of malice,” Villafuerte said.
Of the three victims who showed up at the Senate hearing, it was Michelle who claimed Villafuerte attempted to rape her.
Michelle, who uncovered her face during the hearing to dramatize her decision to face her tormentor, accused Villafuerte of sexually assaulting her at the POLO in Riyadh last May.
Villafuerte denied the allegation but according to Michelle, there were two Filipinos who witnessed the entire incident and they would corroborate her story.
Apart from Michelle, the two other victims identified only as Analiza and Angel were also present during the hearing and recounted their experiences with Villafuerte.
However, unlike Michelle, the two decided to continue hiding their identities.
Angel was raped by her Arab employer before she was rescued by Villafuerte.
According to Angel, the questions asked by Villafuerte during his interview with her were hurtful and highly inappropriate.
Villafuerte allegedly asked her if she was really raped by her employer, which sexual position he took and if he had a large penis.
Angel said that she was subjected to the same type of questioning when she later followed up her case with Villafuerte.
She said that during her first visit to the POLO, Villafuerte introduced her as a rape victim and she was laughed at by those present.
She ended up doing various domestic chores at the Bahay Kalinga.
In the case of Analiza, she escaped her employer in Riyadh after being subjected to harsh working conditions.
She claimed she was almost raped by an Arab taxi driver on her way to the Philippine embassy.
Just like Angel, Analiza was interviewed by Villafuerte when she got to the POLO.
And just like Angel, Analiza claimed she experienced the same inappropriate behavior from Villafuerte.
She was asked if her employer touched her and if he really raped her as she claimed.
After she gave a negative response, Analiza said Villafuerte asked her if it was alright for him to touch her instead.
In denying all of the allegations against him, Villafuerte asserted he was the victim and had done nothing but served his country well in his almost 30 years in public service.
“Maybe I was not able to serve them well in their case, that’s why they’re trying to get back at me. They may not be satisfied because like I said, with so many problems in Riyadh, there are a lot of people who come to me and there are certain things that are beyond my control,” he said.
Asked by Enrile if he was accusing the three women of wanting to retaliate against him, Villafuerte said that it was “something like that.”
“Do you think if that’s the purpose, a woman with her demeanor, the way she is talking here before this audience and before the Filipino public, would expose herself to this kind of shame and abuse, exposing what was done to her honor as a woman?” Enrile said in response to Villafuerte’s claim.
Villafuerte pointed out he has a spotless record as a public servant and there are many OFWs in distress who could attest to how they were assisted.
“I am asking the committee to examine these incidents further. Why me when I have been faithfully serving our OFWs? A lot of people would attest to my dedication to my work there. I miss a lot of my lunches and there are times that I even give my lunch to the OFWs that I encounter. I really pity them,” Villafuerte said in Filipino.
“That is why the allegations they have against me are not true. Because it is in my heart to help other people. It has never crossed my mind to do any of that to my fellow Filipinos,” he added.
Blue Ribbon committee chairman Teofisto Guingona III said he found the testimony of Villafuerte hard to believe after hearing the testimonies of the three women.
“At this point it is clear that there is abuse of authority, there is abuse of women, there is abuse of our fellow Filipinos. Whatever you may call it, it definitely requires strong measure and strong disciplinary action and a revamp of the system of treating our OFWs abroad,” Guingona said.
Sen. Cynthia Villar, for her part, said there appears to be a semblance of truth to what the three women were saying.
Villar said it was bothering her that there appears to be a change in the values of people assigned to areas such as the Middle East with regard to women.
“Maybe the attitude of people in the Middle East is different and somehow this has affected Filipinos there who might think that what is allowed in the Middle East is alright to copy. I want to think that there is a pattern in the behavior,” she said.
For distressed workers
The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), on the other hand, announced it has allocated P10 million for the reintegration program of distressed workers from the Middle East.
Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said distressed OFWs from the Middle East are the priority of the “Balik-Pinay Balik Hanapbuhay” project.
Baldoz said the DOLE is currently undertaking on-site implementation of the program to encourage distressed workers to return home for good.
The initial P10-million fund would benefit about 800 OFWs sheltered at welfare centers in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Qatar, Oman and Jordan.
Baldoz ordered all labor attachés in the Middle East to coordinate with the Philippine embassy and the host governments to fast-track the issuance of exit visas for these OFWs who are mostly women.
She said the POLOs would issue certificates of eligibility to the OFWs, and would immediately report to the home office the nature of livelihood they would want to pursue.
Baldoz said the immediate reporting would allow the government to prepare early the assistance needed by the OFWS.
Baldoz tasked the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) to simplify the requirements for eligibility to the project.
Baldoz said she expects the first batch of 777 distressed OFWs from the Middle East to arrive by September.
Under the Balik-Pinay Balik Hanapbuhay project, returning workers will receive livelihood grants of P10,000.
Victims of illegal recruitment and trafficking will be prioritized, along with other displaced household service workers. – With Mayen Jaymalin