ABU DHABI // Joseph Ejercito Estrada, the former president of the Philippines, will pay for flights home for 50 women who have spent weeks at a shelter after running away from their employers. Mr Estrada, who was in the capital before heading to Kuwait for Philippines Independence Day celebrations, paid a surprise visit to the women's shelter at the Philippine Overseas Labour Office on Tuesday.
Nasser Munder, the labour attaché, said there were 150 women at the shelter, most of them housemaids who said they had been mistreated, overworked or unpaid. The passports of the 50 women Mr Estrada will help to repatriate have been retrieved from their employers, but until he intervened they could not afford to pay for their tickets back to the Philippines. Mr Munder said Mr Estrada's visit, as well as his gesture, had been unexpected.
"I've done so many things which were not for the sake of any publicity," Mr Estrada, who is 72, said on the sidelines of a community gathering on Tuesday. He praised the Filipino expatriate community in Abu Dhabi for contributing to their country's economy and vowed to continue helping overseas Filipino workers, known as OFWs, who have had problems with their employers. "I recognise the sacrifices you have made," he told the gathering of about 300 workers and diplomats.
"I know how difficult it is to be away from your families." Mr Estrada - who was ousted as president in 2001, convicted on charges of large-scale corruption in September 2007 but pardoned by the president, Gloria Arroyo, the following month - told his Abu Dhabi audience: "I would not have the courage to stand before you if I am guilty of stealing from the government's coffers. "I'm proud to say that not one of my cabinet members was involved in any anomaly. When I was in jail and the Department of Justice reviewed all the contracts I had signed, they did not find any anomalous transactions." Mr Estrada is among presidential hopefuls in elections due in May next year.
He said of the OWFs: "If not for them, our economy today would have slowed down. "Our country would be facing many problems without their contribution." According to the Central Bank of the Philippines, remittances from Filipino workers worldwide totalled US$16.43 billion (Dh60.3bn) in 2008, a 13.7 per cent increase from $14.45bn in 2007. The remittances are a major source of foreign exchange, and are credited with keeping the Philippines economy afloat.
With Mr Estrada in Abu Dhabi were his wife, the former senator Loi Ejercito Estrada, and their son, the senator Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada. Jinggoy Estrada, who is chairman of the Philippines senate committee on labour, said the plight of Filipino workers was also one of his chief concerns. "During my first visit last year, I really took pity on the workers who were maltreated and abused." Last July he paid for flights home for 30 Filipinas who were living in women's shelters in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.