Bello says Labatt Jolly coming back to HK

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Dela Torre

MANILA—After saying sorry, Labor Attache (Labatt) Jalilo Dela Torre will return to Hong Kong to take back his old post at the helm of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said.

Bello said Labor Attache Leonida V. Romulo, who is expected to arrive here in HK on July 15, will head the POLO in Wan Chai until Dela Torre’s comeback.

“He apologized. And for humanitarian reasons, I agreed that he can now return to Hong Kong effective August 1, with the warning that if he does it again, he will be recalled for good immediately,” Bello told Hong Kong News.

The labor chief did not elaborate but a well-placed source at the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) here in Manila said Dela Torre sent a letter of apology to Bello.

Various overseas Filipino worker (OFW) groups from Hong Kong, the Philippines, and other countries had protested the DOLE chief’s order recalling Dela Torre, who appeared in one of the protest actions in HK. Many of these groups later called for Bello’s ouster.

These protests and the ouster campaign did not escape the notice of DOLE main office. When asked about Dela Torre’s letter, Bello confirmed receiving it but he did not elaborate on what it said.

Asked for comment, Dela Torre said: “I hope that aspect of my reassignment to HK will remain as privileged communication between myself and the Secretary,” Dela Torre said.

“The important thing is that we can now look forward to a renewed push of my advocacies in HK,” he added.

The labor chief “temporarily recalled” Dela Torre to Manila in March so that he could answer a complaint that he was “playing favorites” in the accreditation of employment agencies in HK. Dela Torre’s three-year term as Labatt was supposed to end in March next year.

On the other hand, the International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB) of DOLE informed the POLO on July 11 that Labatt Romulo will arrive around lunchtime on July 15 on board a Philippine Airlines flight.

ILAB said Romulo will “assume her duties and responsibilities as Labor Attache of the POLO in Hong Kong.”

Asked about Romulo’s deployment, Bello said she would serve as acting Labatt until Dela Torre’s return, which might take a while since he would again need the go signal of the Hong Kong government and of the Philippine Commission on Elections (Comelec).

The Comelec had banned the transfers of foreign service officers from May 13, 2018 to August 11, 2019 in preparation for the May 2019 elections.

Romulo had served as assistant labor attache in Hong Kong before returning to Manila and then getting assigned as the Philippine labor attache to Canada in 2013.

In his interview with Hong Kong News on April 22, Bello insisted that Dela Torre was recalled “to explain his side” on the accusations against him.

“I don’t know why it became blown out of proportion. He was recalled so he can explain. It was not a punishment or penalty,” Bello said.

“If it is found that he committed a mistake, he will have to face the consequences. But if he is not guilty of anything, then he will return to Hong Kong,” he added.

Bello said an investigation team headed by Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) Deputy Administrator Aristodes Ruaro recommended Dela Torre’s recall.

Ruaro’s team made a surprise visit to Hong Kong from January 25 to 27 and conducted an inquiry. Dela Torre was on vacation at the time.

“We sent a team to verify the complaint that he was playing favorites when it comes to accreditation. The team that went to Hong Kong recommended that he be recalled to explain,” Bello said.

After Dela Torre was ordered to return to Manila in April, various OFW groups appealed to Bello to nullify the recall order.

Bello is vying for the post of Ombudsman, which becomes vacant when Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales retires on July 26. President Duterte will name her successor.

Special Assistant to the President Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, President Duterte’s influential right-hand man, said during Mr. Duterte’s last visit to HK in April that Bello should not replace Dela Torre.

“Secretary Bello, OFWs love Dela Torre. Don’t replace him,” Go said in the presence of Bello during a public meeting with OFW groups at the Regal Oriental Hotel in Kowloon City. Put on the spot, Bello gave the thumbs-up in reply.

“Secretary Bello said (Dela Torre) will not be replaced,” Go then declared, to the applause of those present.

Go is reportedly eyeing a Senate seat in next year’s elections and those gathered at the Kowloon hotel were among his main supporters in HK.

Former Labor Undersecretary Susan Ople, of the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, also expressed disbelief that Dela Torre was recalled.

She said Dela Torre was behind the filing of anti-human trafficking cases against illegal recruiters who were luring unsuspecting Filipinos to Russia and the United Kingdom.

Dela Torre was also credited with successfully pushing for the inclusion of a provision in the employment contract of foreign domestic workers in HK stating that they should not clean windows, especially in high-rise buildings, from the outside.

The Society of Hong Kong Recruiters Accredited to the Philippines (SHARP) also said that Dela Torre’s programs “improved the welfare, protection, and benefits” of Filipino domestic workers in HK.