FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - August 6, 2016 - 12:00am

There is something rough, almost uncouth, in the manner Bangladesh Ambassador John Gomes is pushing our government agencies and banks to immediately return his country’s money.

Kim Wong, in an unprecedented move, turned over that money to our banking authorities as a way to avoid entanglement in a money laundering scandal. A total of $81 million, we will recall, was coursed through Philippine banks by those responsible for hacking into the Bank of Bangladesh.

Because the return of such large amount of cash is unprecedented, our authorities are still determining the process by which the ownership of the fund could be legally determined. The Bank of Bangladesh must also file a claim to these funds.

This could be a messy, complex process.

But the Bangladesh ambassador seems to want us to simply pack the returned cash in boxes and have it shipped to his home country. That is not the way things work under the rule of law.

To begin with, we have not completed investigation of this scandal. We do not know who hacked the Bangladesh Bank. We do not know where to pin responsibility for the crime.

The Bangladesh finance minister says the hacking was completely an inside job since it required several handprints to funnel out the funds. Ambassador Gomes, for his part, says outsiders are responsible for the hack.

This is an important issue. The Federal Bank of New York received authenticated instructions to wire the funds to Manila. It has yet to be established that the funds were illegally withdrawn from Dhaka.

Why is the ambassador in such a hurry to extract the money?

It could be he is under pressure from his home government. The more likely explanation, however, is that the ambassador merely acting out of character.

A couple of years ago, a Filipina employee who served at the embassy of Bangladesh for nearly two decades filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC). The complaint was for illegal dismissal as well as a claim for benefits denied her.

The NLRC ruled in favor of the Filipina. Lawyers for the Bangladesh embassy, however, claim the diplomatic outpost was immune from suit.

The complainant, Alona T. Contridas, has elevated the matter to our Court of Appeals. This is a significant case because it covers the rights of Filipino staff working for foreign embassies in the country.

Beyond that the complaint is interesting because the narrative gives us an insight into the character of Gomes.

Contridas worked as a cleaner in the embassy. She was later promoted to messenger, with a monthly salary of P17,000.

Even after her promotion, Gomes instructed her to report earlier for work to perform cleaning duties in the embassy before office hours. The reason for that, it turns out, was that the person to do the cleaning was made to report to the ambassador’s home to do cleaning, laundry and cooking duties.

All the while, a monthly salary of P15,000 was due her. But Ambassador Gomes paid her only P12,000.  Each month, it turns out, the ambassador skims P3,000 from his embassy’s lowliest employee.

On bad days, Gomes was reported to throw tantrums. Once he threw the trash before the Filipino staff.

He routinely called Filipino “thieves” and once made the claim half of Filipinas were “prostitutes.” In a most undiplomatic way, he describes former president Noynoy Aquino as the most stupid president in the world.

Gomes seems to have such disdain for Filipinos. The disdain is especially severe for Contridas, who he threatened with termination before his tour of duty ends. He calls her “stupid lady” and “dirty women” in front of others. True enough, he had the Filipina removed from the embassy staff two years ago.

Unfortunately for Gomes, he picked on a fighter.

Contridas wrote the Bangladesh prime minister complaining of the ambassador’s tyrannical behavior towards the staff. She specifically complained about the ambassador skimming from the salaries of Filipino employees.

The complainant likewise wrote then President Benigno Aquino, complaining about the demeaning remarks the ambassador was making about Filipinos in general and Aquino in particular. We are not sure if Aquino ever read that letter, but it is reproduced in full in the complaint filed with the NLRC.

No wonder Gomes bullies our government agencies, the Senate included. He is drawing from his own personal prejudice against our government and our people. He treats our government officials like he treats his embassy’s local hires.

We wonder when this man’s tour of duty will end. This might be the reason he is in such a hurry to get the money before he goes. That will be a major feather in his cap.

But should we all pander to his whim?

If the Bank of Bangladesh failed to adequately protect itself from hackers (or worse, allowed a conspiracy from within that bank), then it bears some responsibility for what happened. If an ordinary depositor fails to protect his PIN, resulting in his account being hacked, he surely bears some responsibility for what happened.

Meanwhile, the Court of Appeals is now being asked to rule if Filipinos employed in foreign embassies are entitled to the same labor protection that ordinary workers enjoy. If the embassy of Bangladesh gets away with its claim it is exempt from suit, this will be a sad day for Filipino workers.

There are several layers of issues swirling around the person of Ambassador Gomes. One shudders to think he could win them all.


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