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'Why is labor sec taking up cudgels for anonymous agencies?'

26 August 2019

By Daisy CL Mandap

This is the question asked by former Labor Attache Jalilo dela Torre, who continues to face controversy more than a month since being yanked out unceremoniously from his Hong Kong post.

This time, his name is being dragged into an alleged anomalous deal to upgrade the Philippine Overseas Labor Office’s 13-year online system, with no less than his boss, Philippine Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, questioning the transaction.

In a press statement issued on Aug 25, the Department of Labor and Employment said Secretary Bello has ordered a probe into the “haste” with which Polo, then headed by Dela Torre, had replaced the old service provider for the online system, EmployEasy Ltd.

Bello questions 'haste', lack
of transparency'in new deal
The statement also said a fact-finding team had already been formed to look into alleged “improprieties” in choosing the new system provider, Polaris Tools Ltd.

The move was apparently in reaction to a letter sent by an anonymous group to Bello and circulated in Hong Kong a few days after Dela Torre was told to vacate his office by Jul 7, and move to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The letter supposedly signed on behalf of “Group of HK agencies seeking for justice” alleged that no fair public bidding was conducted and that there was a conflict of interest on Polaris’ part because it was closely identified with an employment agency.

Asked to comment on the move, Dela Torre, who is on vacation leave in the Philippines, said via messenger: “Why is the Secretary taking up the cudgels for a group of agencies that have not identified themselves?”

Dela Torre urges, study the new system first
He said Polaris was chosen because it gives better protection to workers and makes Polo more efficient. The allegations that the contract was awarded in haste and without transparency was without basis.

He suggested that Secretary Bello should first find out the capabilities of the new system, and why the old system was replaced.

“There is a clear conflict of interest on the part of the old provider. The complaint is by a group of anonymous agencies trying to protect the old provider,” he said.

Dole’s statement noted that Polo terminated the services of EmployEasy on Dec. 5, 2018, and after soliciting proposals for a new service provider the following month, chose Polaris.
The contract was signed on Mar 7 this year between Dela Torre for Polo and Polaris director Lindsay Ernst. Polaris’ chief executive officer, Jaime Deverall, was then in the United States. Two other Polo officials, Marivic Clarin and Joszua Villa, signed as witnesses.

The statement did not mention that Polo or Dole will not pay anything for the new system, and that whatever Polaris charges to agencies for maintaining the system will have prior approval from Polo.

Neither did it say when the investigation will begin.
Polo’s officer-in-charge Antonio Villafuerte says he only learned about the investigation from published reports on the statement, and has not received any information directly from Manila.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and closeup
Deverall surprised by allegations
Polaris’ Deverall, who is in Manila as of this writing, said via email that he was also surprised by the allegations as his company had gone through a regular bidding process along with three other groups, including EmployEasy.

“We were told that the contract had been awarded to us because we were the only bidding team that actually presented a fully operational system,” he said.

“In addition, we were told that our team and our experience uniquely positioned us to build the system. We are a group of Stanford University computer scientists with Filipino roots hoping to do our part to serve OFWs,” he said.

But he said he was confident the Dole investigation will show the transparent nature of the bidding process, and the big advantages to be gained from the new system that his company will introduce.

He says once they get the go signal to release their new digital system for the project, they can save Polo 80 man-hours per week, and each employment agency over 40 man-hours per week.

The waiting times faced by overseas Filipino workers at Polo will also be drastically cut, and their safety better assured.

“Our system increases safety for OFWs because it digitizes the currently paper-based agency and employer watchlists. Our digital watchlists will be used to keep employers and employment agencies accountable for their actions,” Deverall said.

As part of the deal, Polaris has already installed 10 new computers in Polo, and three new routers to speed up its connection. It had hoped to be fully operational by next month.

Earlier, 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 security breaches.

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.

In addition, 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.
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