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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 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 U.S. State Department to evacuate U.S. citizens from Libya to Malta was offered to the Philippine government for less than half the cost it paid to a Maltese broker.
Regrets for leaving Libya
Many of the 766 evacuees later expressed regret for leaving their jobs in Libya after complaining to the DFA and to the Philippine media about the harsh conditions they experienced on board the government’s chartered ship, the F/B Bridge.
The Libyan government had appealed to the Filipinos to remain in the country as it feared the collapse of the Libyan health system with the departure of Filipino health care workers.
Upon their arrival in Manila from Malta, the evacuees showed the media cell phone camera recordings of their voyage, 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 from Libya to Malta.
One OFW nurse named Zel showed the bites from bed bugs all over her body that she said she acquired at the ship. 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.
Questions raised at ENFID conference
While the DFA has not yet released the results of its investigation on the conditions on board the F/B Bridge, new questions about the government’s contract with a self-employed business 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.
Mr. Kevin Attard, a local Malta businessman, disclosed that then-outgoing Philippine Ambassador to Italy Virgilio Reyes had requested him in July of 2014 to assist the Philippine government in finding a passenger ship that could ferry Filipino workers from Libya to Malta.
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 Attard Holdings Ltd., the leading Maltese company for customs and shipping freight services, Attard was the ideal resource person for Amb. Reyes to contact as he was also 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 Reyes’ request, 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 U.S. and Australian governments, the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and various corporations which sought to evacuate their personnel out of Libya.
HSC San Gwann
Attard showed an email dated July 29, 2014 at 10:36 a.m., 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 out its high-speed vessel – HSC San Gwann – to the Philippine government to ferry its citizens from Libya to Malta in just six hours for the price of Lumpsum Euros 345,000. That ship can carry 427 passengers and garage for 22 cars (which can be used for a large volume of luggage).
While 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 Lora-Santos had traveled to Malta and had already made other arrangements. Attard wondered why Consul Lora-Santos had not bothered to contact him while she was in Malta. Consul Lora-Santos knew 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 had flown 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 as 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.
Where is F/B Bridge?
There is no mention in 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 rental 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 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 U.S. 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 Polidano? Why did the government not engage in due diligence to learn about alternatives offered by other ferry companies in Malta? Why did the government not investigate the references of Polidano before awarding him a contract that paid him $2,350 for every OFW ferried from Libya to Malta?
The European Network of Filipinos in the Diaspora (ENFID) and the Global Filipino Diaspora Council (GFDC) should demand an official Philippine government investigation.
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