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New ALA pledges his best after ‘painful’ Riyadh experience

21 December 2018

Villafuerte on his first day at work at POLO

By Vir B. Lumicao

His last posting abroad might have left him scarred, but the new Philippine assistant labor attaché in Hong Kong is determined to put the bad experience behind him, and just work harder at serving those in need.

ALA Antonio Rivera Villafuerte arrived in Hong Kong from Manila on Dec. 19, and was met at the airport by a group of well wishers led by Labor Attaché Jalilo dela Torre.
The next day, Villafuerte was accompanied by Labatt Dela Torre to the Consulate where he was warmly received by officers led by Consul Roderico Atienza.
Consulate officials give warm welcome to Villafuerte (4th from left)

This is the first overseas assignment of Villafuerte, 54, who comes from Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya, since he was recalled to the Home Office from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia over the so-called “sex for flight” scandal.

The scandal was exposed by then Akbayan Rep Walden Bello, who claimed embassy officials in the Saudi capital promised victims priority in repatriation in exchange for sexual favors. 

Three repatriated Filipinas pointed to Villafuerte as a ringleader, and one of them claimed he had pimped her to an Egyptian.

Villafuerte was recalled and investigated, but was subsequently cleared of the charges.

Even then Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz defended Villafuerte, saying he had no prior record of abusing OFWs abroad. She said it was the first time she had heard of such a scandal involving Villafuerte, whose wife and children lived with him in Riyadh.

The scandal eventually died down. Even so, the stigma that accompanied the charges has scarred the soft-spoken labor official, who says he would still feel his chest tighten whenever he recalls being accused of something that he never did.

Villafuerte said it all started when he exposed an illegal recruitment syndicate that was victimizing OFWs in Saudi. The smear campaign was launched by people behind the syndicate whose toes he had stepped on, he said.

Following his recall, he was assigned to various jobs in the Home Office. He was detailed to the POEA conciliation unit, which mediates in disputes between workers and their employers in different countries.

After staying for almost two years in that unit, he was assigned to the International Labor Affairs Bureau, where he attended meetings on mutual agreements and some policy issues.

Comprising a pool of labor attaches, ILAB is the unit where the labor secretary would draw people to assign to the regions, or to related agencies such as the POEA, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, wherever the secretary sees them fit to provide service.

Then came an order from Bello for Villafuerte to take up the vacant ALA post in Hong Kong. “Nagpapasalamat ako kay Secretary Bello dahil binigyan niya uli ako ng  pagkakataon para ma-assign at makatulong sa ating mga kababayan,” Villafuerte said.

For now, the new ALA is familiarizing himself with the daily activities and processes at POLO, where he will be in charge of case management and community relations, according to Labatt Dela Torre.

Villafuerte said part of his job is also to sign new employment contracts, which have been heaping up at a rate of 750 per day.

The man who started his career with the Department of Labor and Employment 33 years ago has risen from the ranks.

After finishing Bachelor of Laws at the Manuel L. Quezon University/University of the East in 1985, Villafuerte initially joined the DOLE as a clerk handling supplies. Later he  moved up to the Bureau of Labor Relations, then to the National Conciliation and Mediation Board.

His first overseas posting was to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, for two years, before he was moved to Riyadh where he served for nine months before his controversial recall.

Asked what lesson he had drawn from his Riyadh experience, Villafuerte said: “Lalong doblehin ko siguro ang mag-iingat and not to be too trusting, kasi masyado akong nagtiwala, kasi ganyan ako, what you see is what you get.”

“Kung ano yung nakikita ninyo, ganoon ako makisama, wala akong itinatago. Siguro nasobrahan ko, pero ang (pakay) ko, tumulong pa rin ako kahit ginanyan nila ako, ang puso ko nandiyan pa rin. Kasi napakasaya na napakagaan ang pakiramdam kapag nakakatulong.”   

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