MANILA, Oct 2, 2019, SCMP. In a move critics say flouts the Philippine constitution, President Rodrigo Duterte has appointed a failed congressional candidate and an ardent supporter to a key position dealing with overseas workers. According to a list of presidential appointees released on Monday, Esther Margaux Uson was made deputy administrator for media affairs at the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) on September 23, reported the South China Morning Post.
The post caters to the roughly two million Filipinos employed overseas, whose remittances make a major contribution to the country’s economy. The Philippine central bank says the amount of money sent back to the Philippines in 2017 reached US$28.1 billion, nearly 10 per cent of gross domestic product.
Mocha Uson, as she is more popularly known, has been called the “queen of fake news” for her Facebook posts, which many Filipinos have taken issue with. A dancer, model and sex coach, she played a key role in Duterte’s presidential campaign earlier this year. She was appointed to two prior positions in the government but resigned from both, and then ran for Congress in May, losing spectacularly. Uson’s Facebook account has 5.78 million followers, yet her party-list in the polls only garnered 116,000 votes, or 0.43 per cent of the votes cast.
Now, critics say, her OWWA appointment runs against a provision in the constitution forbidding losing candidates from being appointed to a government post for one year after an election.
However, the Philippine Daily Inquirer has reported presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo as saying that a resolution issued by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) exempted party-list candidates from that provision.
A party-list is a special interest group that can field candidates to run for up to three seats in Congress’ lower house. Uson, 37, chose to join the AA Kasosyo party-list, formed by Janet Lim-Napoles, a businesswoman who has been jailed for helping senators plunder billions in public funds.
Reacting to Uson’s appointment, the anti-election-fraud group Kontra Daya criticised what it called the use of “legal technicalities” to “hide the ugly head of patronage politics”.
Uson’s self-defined mission, which she has posted on her Facebook page, is to drum up support for a separate department dedicated solely to the concerns of overseas workers. She wrote that while they were regarded as “the new heroes, there is no cabinet post dedicated to their needs”.
“It’s like they are only heroes during elections,” she said.
Overseas worker concerns currently come under the Department of Labour and Employment.
However, Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon said he opposed the creation of a new department, and expressed fears the move could exhaust the OWWA fund to which each overseas worker contributes personally.
Drilon noted that the money in the fund would reach 40 billion pesos (US$769 million) in 10 years.
“Whoever has control of this department being proposed would have in their control 40 billion in 10 years’ time. And this will even be beyond the scrutiny of Congress because Congress has delegated to the board of trustees the disposition of these public funds,” Drilon said.
Uson is currently accompanying Duterte on a state visit to Russia. An OWWA official, who declined to be identified, said on Tuesday: “We were expecting her to report for work today, but she didn’t appear.”
The source said Uson was expected to be deputy administrator for media affairs. She is widely known for her posts on social media, which she used to heavily promote Duterte’s run for the presidency. Critics say she did this by using her millions of followers to share invented “facts” and made-up stories, and by directing them to insult and harass the president’s detractors.
Her appointment is the third round of goodwill she has received from the president. When he assumed office, Duterte awarded her a post at the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board. After a few months she resigned, apparently because of differences with fellow board members. She said she had been unable to convince them to stop television networks showing “garbage” programmes.
Duterte then appointed her assistant secretary of the Presidential Communications Operations Office, where she committed a series of gaffes that invited ridicule, including referring to the “263rd article” of the constitution, which only has 18.
Overseas workers group Migrante International on Tuesday said: “Duterte is putting the hard-earned money of overseas workers at easy disposal of a government official with a record of wasting people’s money in purveying fake news.
“He has appointed someone whose actions are contradictory to the mandate of the OWWA to care for the welfare of all overseas workers, regardless of their beliefs.”
Migrante also attacked a trip by Uson to Kuwait last year which she said had aimed to “rescue” a number of Filipino workers from oppressive employers. She filmed the visit and released the video, which caused a diplomatic blow-up. The group said her actions had been more detrimental than helpful and were a “publicity stunt that only placed the lives of our migrant workers in harm’s way”.
When Duterte assumed office, his campaigners said he would appoint only “the best and the brightest”, but many appointees have been linked to corruption and scandal or forced to resign. For Uson, Duterte has even created a new post. By law, the OWWA can only have two deputy administrators, but Uson will be a third.
Kontra Daya said Uson would be paid at least 1.86 million pesos annually. “Lest we forget, her salary shall come from the people’s taxes,” the group said.