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Consulate to protest return of passports seized from ‘unlicensed’ lending firm

11 June 2019


By The SUN
 
About 200 Filipina clients swarmed OFC's office in Sheung Wan on Sunday, Jun 9
Officers of the Assistance to Nationals section of the Consulate say they will complain to the police after being told officers at the Wanchai Police Station on Arsenal Street had released Philippine passports that they seized from a money-lending company in Sheung Wan on Jun 6.

Lending company OFC, which does not appear in the latest list of licensed money lenders in Hong Kong, also has offices in Wanchai and Shamsuipo.

As of yesterday, Jun 10, the police had returned the passports of about 30 Filipina domestic workers who had borrowed money from OFC, after reportedly making copies of each.

The long-standing policy in such cases is for the police to turn over the passports to the Consulate as they are deemed government property, and because it is illegal under Philippine laws to use them as collateral for loans. But before this, the passports are held by the police as evidence in case a prosecution is warranted.

ATN officer Danny Baldon said he had spoken with the police earlier in the day and reminded them about the protocol, after being told by some of OFC's clients that they had been advised they could get their passports back despite being seized in the raid.

Told that a reporter for The SUN had personally seen officers at the Wanchai police station release the passports to some 10 borrowers who were sent there by OFC, Baldon said ATN would immediately call them up and write a protest letter, if need be.

Baldon said the officers had earlier given assurance that the Consulate would be consulted on the passports that were in their possession.
Notice outside OFC office warns against 'rumors' on social media

A day earlier, Consul General Antonio A. Morales also confidently gave assurance that the passports would be turned over to the Consulate once the police is done using them as evidence in prosecuting the case.

“Matagal pa yon kasi hindi naman agad natatapos ang imbestigasyon ng mga pulis,” he told The SUN.

He also said he had yet to receive a response from the Hong Kong government on his call that those who take possession of Philippine passports, either as collateral for loans or for whatever reason, be prosecuted.

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ATN head Consul Paulo Saret also reiterated a statement he made a day earlier that there is no way passports that had been seized in a police raid would be given back to the owners.

But it would appear the police had decided to change procedures for still unknown reasons, and without consulting the Consulate.

It is also not clear how many passports were seized in the raid. Unlike similar operations in the past, the police did not issue a press release, nor has the Police Public Relations Branch responded to a written request for information about the case.
But according to a local Chinese woman who was assisting the helpers in getting their passports back, about 200 irate Filipinas swarmed their office on Sunday, Jun 9 to inquire about their passports after the police raid.

The woman who did not give her name, refused to make a statement regarding the case, except to say the company is helping the borrowers.

“We are scared. I can tell you we try our best. Yesterday, we were working from 9am to 2am (today) in the office,” the woman said, referring to the deluge of customers.

“But I can tell you if there’s anything we can do to help the Filipinos, we will do it,” the Hong Kong woman said.

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She did not say why the company was asking for passports and employment contracts as collateral for the loans, despite well-publicized reports of police cracking down on money lenders who engage in such a practice.

Neither did she debunk reports that her company had been operating without a license.

Some clients also reported being asked to sign documents stating they never received a loan from OFC and OFC did not take their passport, before they could join the queue for the passport pickup.

Meanwhile, about 20 helpers had gone to the lending firm’s office in the same afternoon, and were attended to by three staff members.

They were asked to pay their loan arrears in full, before being given a date on which they could expect to pick up their passports at the Wanchai police station.

The staff said the company owner, a certain Mr Wong, was at the police station that very moment negotiating for the release of the passports to the borrowers.

She said that on Sunday, 10 borrowers were able to recover their passports, and the next day, 20 others managed to do likewise. This was confirmed in social media postings by the borrowers themselves.

Those who were at OFC were mostly upset at what they called fake news on social media about the lending company that, they said, had caused them damage.

“Ang kumpanyang ito ang takbuhan ko kapag nangangailangan ako ng pera, tulad noong namatay ang asawa ko,” said a tearful helper who did not want to give her name.

“Marami kaming natutulungan nila, sila lang ang nahihiraman namin na hindi tumatawag sa mga amo kapag di kami nakakabayad agad,” she said.

The woman said she was penniless when her husband died in 2013 and OFC lent her money and gave back her passport so she could go home. She said she returned the passport when she returned.

But this contrasts with text messages shared online by other customers, in which OFC staff refused to give in to their pleadings to “borrow” their passport for an emergency. Instead, they were told to either pay their loan in full, or look for a replacement passport to serve as guarantee for their outstanding debt.

The workers and the staff blamed a Facebook post by a certain Anthony Clinton that, they said, led to the police raid on the OFC offices and seizure of the hocked passports.

However, a Filipina who was helping the local woman arrange the recovery of the passports said not all of those who had taken out loans from OFC would get their documents back. She refused to say why.

Again, everyone was tight-lipped on why passports were demanded in exchange for the loans, and why the borrowers readily complied, knowing full well that the Consulate has taken a firm stance against those who engage in the practice.

Any Filipino national whose passport is seized by the police in raids on illicit establishments is not allowed to renew it in Hong Kong. The Consulate will issue the Filipino national a one-way travel document so he/she can apply for a new one at the Department of Foreign Affairs’ passport office in Manila.
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