MALTA –Serious questions are being raised about the Philippine government’s decision a year ago this week to rent an old, slow bedbug-infested passenger ship for $1.8 million to ferry 766 Filipino workers on a 221 mile voyage from Libya to Malta on August 15, 2014. These questions arose after it was disclosed that a high speed catamaran ferry ship used by the US State Department to evacuate US citizens from Libya to Malta was offered to the Philippine government for less than half the cost it paid.
The 2014 evacuation of OFWs from Libya was ordered by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) following the beheading of a Filipino worker and the gang-rape of a Filipino nurse in the strife-torn nation in July. Out of 13,000 OFWs working in Libya at the time, only 766 of them availed of the government’s offer of free transportation back to the Philippines as most expressed preference for the uncertainty of war in Libya than the certainty of unemployment in the Philippines.
Many of the 766 evacuees later expressed regret for having accepted the government’s offer after complaining to the DFA and the Philippine media about the squalid conditions they experienced on board the government’s chartered ship, the F/B Bridge.
The evacuees showed the media their cell phone camera recordings of their voyage on the ship which include footage of them sleeping on the ship’s floor and of not being provided with food or water on the long day’s journey to Malta.
One OFW nurse named “Zel” showed the bites from bed bugs all over her body that she says she acquired from the ship. She said the ship’s manager denied her request for medicine because, he said, “that’s just a scratch.”
After the video of the poor treatment of Filipino evacuees on board the F/S Bridge was aired on Philippine television, the DFA immediately announced that it would conduct an investigation of their complaints. “Those accountable will be put to task,” vowed DFA spokesperson Charles Jose.
While the DFA has not yet released the results of its investigation of the conditions on board the F/B Bridge, new questions about the government’s contract with a suspicious “self-employed” professional were raised in Malta at the Summit Conference of the European Network of Filipinos in the Diaspora (ENFID) held here in Valleta on July 31-August 2, 2015.
The questions were prompted by the disclosure of Mr. Kevin Attard, a local Malta businessman, that then outgoing Philippine Ambassador to Italy Virgilio Reyes had requested his assistance in July of 2014 to assist the Philippine government find a passenger ship that could ferry Filipino workers from Libya to Malta.
Mr. Attard was a major sponsor of the ENFID conference where he introduced his personal friend, Malta President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, who welcomed the Filipino delegates from 20 countries in Europe.
As CEO of the leading Maltese company for customs and freight services, Mr. Attard was the ideal resource person for Amb. Reyes to contact as he was the former Honorary Consul of the Philippines in Malta when it was under the Philippine Embassy in Libya before jurisdiction was transferred to the Philippine Embassy in Italy.
Following Amb. Reyes’ request, Mr. Attard then contacted Mr. Francis Portelli, the Director of the Virtu Ferries Ltd. Malta, which operates a fleet of high speed passenger catamarans many of which were used in 2011 by the US and Australian governments, the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and various corporations to evacuate their personnel out of Libya.
Mr. Attard showed an email dated July 29, 2014 at 10:36 AM, from Director Portelli to him under the subject heading “Evacuation Out of Libya obo the Philippine Government”. In the email, Virtu Ferries offered to rent its high speed vessel HSC San Gwann which can carry 427 passengers and garage for 22 cars (which can be used for large volume of luggage) to the Philippine government to ferry its citizens from Libya to Malta in just six hours for the price of “Lumpsum Euros 345,000”.
While Mr. Attard was negotiating with Virtu Ferries to reduce its price to 300,000 Euros, he was informed by Amb. Reyes that Rome Consul-General Leila Santos had traveled to Malta and had already made other arrangements. Mr. Attard wondered why Consul Santos had not bothered to contact him while she was in Malta. Consul Santos knew Mr. Attard because she wrote him in February 2014 informing him that his service as honorary consul of the Philippines in Malta was no longer required.
It was then later reported in the Manila dailies that sometime between August 6 and August 11, 2014, OWWA Officer Cynthia Lamdan flew from Manila to Malta to sign a $1.8 million contract with Mr. Alex Polidano, a Malta businessman who described himself in his personal LinkedIn profile as “self-employed” and “an international business professional with a reputation for motivational leadership and a strong record of achievement; building new operations, driving growth, performance improvement and transformational change.”
There is no mention in Mr. Polidano’s professional profile of his affiliation or connection with “Ocean Marine Services Ltd.”, the company he claimed to represent in the $1.8 million Philippine government contract he signed.
It is also suspicious that the bedbug-infested passenger ship, “F/B Bridge”, cannot be located on Google.
It appears that no one from the DFA or the OWWA bothered to investigate either Mr. Alex Polidano or Ocean Marine Services Ltd. or to check their references or to even Google them before signing the $1.8 million contract.
The Philippine government should have accepted the offer of Virtu Ferries Ltd. which company can be easily found on all the search engines and whose references can be verified with the US State Department and the Australian government. For 766 passengers, Virtu Ferries would have used two high class, high speed catamarans for a combined total cost of 690,000 Euros. Instead of a full day of uncomfortable travel, the Filipino OFWs would have been in Malta in only six hours.
Why did the Philippine government choose to enter into a contract with Mr. Polidano instead of Virtu Ferries?
The European Network of Filipinos in the Diaspora (ENFID) and the Global Filipino Diaspora Council (GFDC) should demand an official government investigation.
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