WHEN my father was chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, he welcomed occasions to meet and discuss issues with top officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs. His keen mind and natural curiosity about events across the world invigorated such discussions and led to a rich harvest of bilateral treaties and agreements during his term.
In 2002, my father found himself on the other side of the fence, as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, meeting with Senator Manny Villar, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee. Those meetings were always cordial, sober, and straightforward. The nationalist bent of both gentlemen cemented a friendship between equals, founded on mutual respect. My mother, Susana, and Mrs. Cynthia Villar, then head of the congressional spouses foundation, also struck a warm friendship.
This preface is necessary to establish that this writer has a fond bias for the Villar family. When I was about to give up on my dream of joining the senatorial race in 2010, it was Senator Villar who invited me to be a part of the Nacionalista Party’s ticket. He and I shared a common passion: to help distressed overseas Filipino workers wherever they may be in the world.
It is perfectly understandable why my family and I are into helping OFWs. During his days as Labor Secretary, my father, Ka Blas Ople, founded the Philippine overseas employment program and spearheaded the creation of such time-tested institutions as the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA), the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC), among others under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor and Employment. To us, every OFW is an extension of the Ople family.
Senator Villar’s love for the OFWs began during his early pioneering days in real estate development. His very first buyer was a Filipino seafarer who continues to reside in that very same unit, decades after. Growing his business as an entrepreneur made Villar more attuned to the needs and problems of our modernday heroes. As someone who defined his fate and mastered it in the challenging worlds of big business and politics, Villar knew how it was to be nameless, penniless, and powerless.
I like it that this humble man fought his way up and sought to bring many along with him on that journey. As a political neophyte, I treasured his fatherly advice to us in the senatorial ticket, often encouraging us to tag along with him and even share the spotlight during interviews. I always have a soft heart for humble people and Senator Villar tops my list of those who lead humble yet meaningful lives.
For the past few years, the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, a non-profit organization that I founded, has been closely working with the Villar Foundation led by its managing director Cynthia Villar on joint projects for OFWs. Three years ago, we launched the “Skills Up!“ Training Program that enabled several overseas workers and their dependents to level up and compete in the workforce no longer as domestic helpers and manual laborers but as skilled workers.
This program has yielded several success stories: Jovelyn, a victim of maltreatment and forced labor trafficking when she worked as domestic helper in the Middle East, is now working for a hotel in Eastwood, Quezon City after graduating from a hotel housekeeping course courtesy of the Villar Foundation. Paul Tarrabago is now working as a hotel housekeeper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Another Villar Foundation scholar, Marievic Himmiwat, is now employed as a nursing aide in Singapore after completing her training at the Asian School for Hospitality Arts (ASHA).
As I write this column, we have a new batch of trainees that are now learning commercial cooking and hotel housekeeping under the aegis of the Villar Foundation. These graduates will be given the chance to have on-the-job training at the Kabayan Hotel, which also has an ongoing partnership with the Blas F. Ople Policy Center.
The lives of Jovelyn, Paul, Marievic, and so many others were transformed through skills development and training. They grew more confident and self-assured and were able to overcome the stigma that comes from being victims of illegal recruitment and human trafficking.
Dear Readers, we all have our own personal choices during this election season. I know I have no right to intrude on your own decision-making process. However, I would be remiss in my role as an OFW advocate, if I keep silent about the work of the Villar Foundation considering my first-hand knowledge about its accomplishments. Mrs. Cynthia Villar as “Misis Hanep Buhay“ is assured of a slot in my ballot, and I hope in yours, as well.
Note: News about a threemonth grace period since extended by the Saudi government to all foreign workers with labor violations came out after my previous column was published. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused. In behalf of our workers in Saudi Arabia, we extend our thanks to the King of Saudi Arabia for such a benevolent gesture.
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