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Customs hit: Hands off OFW boxes of goodies

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FILE PHOTO BY CRISTINA P. RODRIGUEZ

Don’t touch the balikbayan boxes. They contain gifts, not contraband. Probably mostly Spam.

Why not go after smuggled goods and heaps of garbage dumped on this country?

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Lawmakers have lashed out at the plan of the Bureau of Customs (BOC) to clamp down on balikbayan boxes on suspicion that these are being used as a smuggling channel.

Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina announced that he would implement more stringent rules on consolidators of balikbayan boxes granted duty-free status as long as their contents do not exceed $500 in value.

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Foremost among the lawmakers’ complaints is the proposal for the BOC personnel to conduct more physical checks by opening more balikbayan boxes.

Gabriela Rep. Luz Ilagan said the BOC should just leave the balikbayan boxes alone because these have a “special meaning” to both the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and their relatives here.

“It’s a small piece of happiness for our hardworking OFWs and the BOC wants to squeeze more money from them. Aren’t the billions of remittances not enough for these inefficient agencies?” said Ilagan, a member of the House committee on OFW affairs.

“Why are huge containers allowed to slip in without undergoing inspection? Luxury cars can glide like invisible phantoms under the very noses of the BOC. Yet the pasalubongs (homecoming gifts) of our OFWs that do not cost millions are inspected. We are going to the dogs,” Ilagan said.

The BOC estimates that an average of 1,000 containers of balikbayan boxes (400 boxes per container) arrive each month in Philippine ports. It estimated that the government was losing P50 million a month or P600 million a year.

Lawmakers noted that this was just a drop in the bucket compared with the total amount of smuggled goods ranging from $20 billion to $24 billion a year based on the disparity between the official data of exports to the country and the country’s recorded imports.

An Inquirer survey made in December 2014 showed that the top 10 items Filipinos get through balikbayan boxes are chocolates and candies, clothes, shoes, food and canned goods, toiletries, bags, toys, watches, appliances and gadgets.

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New corruption scheme

Quezon City Rep. Winston Castelo said this proposal would only be a new corruption scheme at the BOC.

Castelo said the corruption-tainted BOC should first ensure that all of its employees and officials were honest and not prone to corruption before being allowed to go through the balikbayan boxes.

He said that instead of focusing on petty smuggling, the BOC should answer why it has not caught big-time smugglers or punished its corrupt examiners. He also said that instead of being absorbed with balikbayan boxes that contain “goodies of love” from OFWs, the BOC should first answer why toxic waste from Canada was allowed to enter the country.

Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano said the BOC proposal is counterproductive as the inspection of thousands of balikbayan boxes would only worsen congestion in the ports. “Where are the x-ray machines?” asked Albano.

ACT Teachers Antonio Tinio said the tighter monitoring would lead to “selective or seemingly arbitrary application of rules, shakedowns and other forms of corruption at the hands of Customs officials.” He said the BOC does not have the credibility to conduct these random inspections.

Tinio said the plan was “clearly” meant to divert public attention from large-scale smuggling and misdeclaration of goods that were the main sources of revenue leakage.

Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, for his part, said he would support the BOC plan only if “it does not further inconvenience or burden our OFWs and become another source of corruption.”

‘Insensitive and callous’

Vice President Jejomar Binay, who had served as Presidential Adviser on OFW Concerns before resigning from the Cabinet in July, on Saturday called the stringent rules “insensitive and callous.”

“This plan of the BOC is another burden to our ordinary citizens. This is a proof of the administration’s insensitivity to the concerns of the overseas Filipino workers [whose remittances] have been stimulating the economy,” Binay said.

Binay scoffed at the Customs’ justification that implementing tougher measures for balikbayan boxes will help curb illegal smuggling in the country.

The Vice President said the government should not blame OFWs for its failure to curb illegal smuggling of goods.

Citing the data from the International Monetary Fund, Binay said the government has been losing $19 billion from smuggled goods every year since Mr. Aquino assumed the presidency.

Binay noted that OFWs only want to share with their families some of the things they enjoy while working abroad.

During his version of the State of the Nation Address in July, Binay asked how the BOC came to lose more than 2,000 containers.

“They should instead closely watch activities in the airports and seaports where goods worth billions of pesos are able to get through,” Binay said.

For his part, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the items in the balikbayan boxes are chosen with care by the Filipinos abroad to send to their loved ones back home, and with the random checks, the senders risk losing these items.

“To the BOC, I ask: Have you no shame? For every OFW, a balikbayan box is the equivalent of his or her love letter to a spouse and the rest of the family. Every item inside that box was bought with a specific person and purpose in mind, bought for with the hard-earned money of our modern-day heroes,” he said in a press statement.

“So if a single item there gets lost, can you imagine how that feels to an OFW who invested so much emotion and money just to get those goods home?” he said.

The BOC earlier said the random inspection was done to curb the practice of using the balikbayan boxes for technical smuggling, which deprives the government of revenue.

Marcos said Lina should have consulted stakeholders first before imposing such “draconian” measure.

Lina should also forgo any plan to impose more restrictions on the shipping of balikbayan boxes to the country, including new taxes or additional fees, he said.

Instead, the customs chief should turn his focus on large-scale smuggling in the country’s ports, he added.

The BOC should justify its new practice before the Senate when it tackles the agency’s proposed 2016 budget, the senator said.

“Let them defend themselves during the budget deliberations,” he said.

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TAGS: Alberto Lina, balikbayan boxes, Bureau of Customs, ofws, Overseas Filipino workers, Smuggling
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