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Rogue agencies gang up on Labatt as he sets out to leave HK

25 July 2019

Image may contain: Jalilo Dela Torre, closeup
Labatt Jolly 

By Daisy C L Mandap

Days before he is set to leave Hong Kong at the end of his tumultuous three-year term, Labor Attache Jalilo dela Torre has come under fire from a group of anonymous employment agency operators out to stop one of his legacy projects.

An undated letter sent to Philippine Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III that emerged a few days after Labatt dela Torre officially stepped down on Jul 7 alleged irregularities in the deal he struck to upgrade the Philippine Overseas Labor Office’s computer system.

The letter supposedly signed on behalf of “Group of HK agencies seeking for justice” made two charges against the deal signed by Labatt dela Torre for Polo, and Polaris Tools Limited in March this year. First, that it did not undergo “a fair public bidding, and second, that there is a conflict of interest because of the contractor’s close ties with Fair Employment Agency (FEA).
Labatt dela Torre immediately dismissed the allegations in the letter, saying he didn’t mind being maligned by what he called a “shadowy group” as long as the new system is put in place. “That will make Polo more efficient and strengthen its drives against rogue agencies,” he said.

He also said the reason the anonymous letter-writers did not dare put down their names was because they knew they were making false claims.

“If the allegations of that shadowy group behind the poison letter were true, they should show their names,” he said.
Dela Torre said he decided to upgrade Polo’s system because of complaints that the previous system, introduced in 2006 by then Labor Attache Bernardino Julve, was slow and “susceptible to breaches of security and exposure of private data to unwanted users”.

EmployEasy, which had operated the system for 13 years, was said to have ignored repeated requests for improvement in its service. Thus, instead of helping Polo gather important data on the workers and employers, the system only served largely to facilitate contract processing by agencies.

He also emphasized that Polo is not paying a single cent to Polaris so there was no need to go through the rigorous public bidding required of government projects where enormous sums are often involved.
Polaris will get its revenue from the accredited agencies that will be using the system to transact with Polo. However, the fees it will collect from the agencies will always be subject to Polo’s approval.

Also, as part of the deal, Polaris has already installed 10 new computers in Polo, and three new routers to speed up its connection. The company expects to be fully operational by September.

Of the five groups that responded to his request for proposals, he said Polaris was chosen because it was “the best in terms of the data security model it presented, and the various other improvements they would introduce to the system as spelled out in the Terms of Reference.”

He also dismissed insinuations that Polaris could misuse sensitive data in the system because of the presence of FEA’s founder David Bishop in its board. Dela Torre said he specifically asked full disclosure from the bidders, and he was shown documents filed with the Companies Registry showing Bishop had resigned from FEA more than a year ago.

In contrast, he said EmployEasy’s owner appeared to have also operated an employment agency, HelperDB, and this fact was known to many of the agencies which did nothing about it.

Polaris’ young chief executive officer, Jaime Deverall also called the allegations unfair, saying his company had won the contract fair and square.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, indoor and closeup
Jaime Deverall

He said that after responding to Dela Torre’s request for proposals in January this year, his company was asked to make a presentation to a panel made up of Dela Torre and three of his staff, along with an agency representative. Four other bidders were asked to do the presentation, he said.

“What we showed Polo was that with the simplest technology you can have a system that is much, much better than the old one,” 23-year-old Deverall said.

Aside from presenting a faster and more user-friendly system, Polaris also undertook to be more receptive to feedback from the system’s users.

Deverall says, “We are going to create a lot more efficiency for Polo and also for the agencies.”

He says he has sat down with several agency operators, and has identified different ways through which Polaris can create more values for them, such as helping them track down workers’ visa status with HK Immigration.

Another innovation will see the agencies being able to make group contract processing, instead of individual applications with Polo, and pay all the fees online.

Deverall says he is reaching out to more agencies so he can allay their concerns, and explain how Polaris can help make their work easier.

Thomas Chan, head of one of the biggest groups of accredited employment agencies, says he is open to talking to Polaris, and has distanced himself and his group from the unsigned letter to Bello.

Chan (in barong) and fellow recruiters met with Bello (middle) during his visit to HK last year 

But he admitted that his group, the Hong Kong Union of Employment Agencies, had doubts about Polaris because Bishop’s involvement in the company and FEA was well known in the recruitment industry.

“We don’t have an idea he resigned from the agency, and of course it caused great concern to all. Labatt Jolly never clarified David’s role to us. We hope David addresses our concern…(he should) just be operating and managing the system, nothing else.”

As for Polaris itself, Chan said his group is not in a position to comment on its competency or working performance as it is not yet operating officially.

But during discussions with Labatt Dela Torre, he said his group had indicated that they didn’t mind who would be operating the system as long as (1) the new system will be affordable to agencies and is efficient; (2) the data of employers, applicants and agencies are tightly guarded and monitored by Polo; and (3) the operator is neutral towards both Polo and the agencies.

“If the new operator has any close connection with an employment agency, I don't think the industry will feel comfortable,” he said.

But Labatt dela Torre, who is due to return to the Philippines on Jul 29, has more urgent concerns for now, after being relieved of the workload that had occupied him nearly everyday and at all times of the day for the past three and half years.

He had angioplasty the day after his last day at work and ended up having three stents, with one being caught just in time to prevent him having aneurysm. He rues not finding time away from his work to go for early medical check-up, which was ironically exactly what he had been warning OFWs about as part of his HealthWise project.

Although he has indicated a desire to retire at age 62, Filipino community leaders and even the country’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia are reportedly urging him to reconsider his decision not to take up the offer of moving to Riyadh as labor attaché.

He is taking his sweet time for now, but is still not about to back down from his campaign against rogue agencies, particularly those that tried to get him out of Hong Kong at least twice during his term, just because he had cracked down on them.

“Nothing they will do will make me succumb or weaken my resolve,” he says. “I hope that pronouncement of the President about agency-less recruitment will come true.”

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