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‘Balikbayan’ box rules in the works

A week after the Bureau of Customs (BOC) came under fire over Commissioner Alberto Lina’s directive for customs officers to open and inspect balikbayan boxes, the agency is now in the process of finalizing the guidelines on how to handle packages sent to the Philippines by Filipinos residing or working abroad.

“We are in the process of finalizing it. We’re consolidating with our people in the field to check if we may have missed something. Hopefully on Tuesday we can meet to finalize the draft, then we expect that by Wednesday Commissioner Lina would be able to sign it. By Friday we’ll be having a district conference in Davao. By then we might already give instructions to district collectors on how to treat balikbayan boxes in line with the instruction of the President,” said Arturo Lachica, BOC deputy commissioner for revenue collection monitoring group.

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Lina ordered last week the opening and inspection of balikbayan boxes, saying these were being used to smuggle appliances and other high-value items.

But public outcry from netizens and families of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who expressed alarm over possible pilferage of items they had painstakingly saved for, prompted President Aquino to stop Lina’s order on Monday.

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Mr. Aquino instructed the BOC to instead use x-ray machines to inspect balikbayan boxes, and to open them only when suspicious items are detected.

Should the box need to be opened, a representative from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and the OFW groups must be present and the procedure recorded on CCTV to avoid pilferage and tampering, the President said.

Meanwhile, Lina asked groups of OFWs to assign a representative in his office to help in the implementation of a “pre-cleared” system they are planning to put in place in dealing with balikbayan box shipments.

Under the pre-cleared system, packages will be approved even before they reach the ports here, he said.

Lina yesterday led members of the media to a walk through at the Port of Manila to demonstrate how shipments are inspected using mobile non-intrusive scanners.

Each container van is being scanned for about 15 minutes.

Lina said there are about 440 standard-sized balikbayan boxes in a container, and each mobile scanner can scan 40 containers a day.

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While the BOC has stopped random inspection of balikbayan boxes, Lina said the law still applies regarding which items are allowed inside the boxes.

He said the contents of the box must not exceed P10,000 in value, and that OFWs are only allowed to send one balikbayan box per month.

Only the personal and household effects of Filipinos returning from abroad are exempt from tax.

Canned goods, grocery items, and other household effects must not exceed a dozen a kind, while used or brand new clothes should not exceed three yards per cut. Firearms and ammunition and illegal drugs are prohibited.

‘Prioritize CMTA’

Lina also urged Congress to prioritize the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act (CMTA) to improve the operations of the agency.

“We urged our colleagues in the government to prioritize CMTA so we can harmonize, modernize and simplify our Customs procedures, superseding policies and procedures that have not been updated as far back as 1957,” Lina said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the “Zero Remittance Day” of OFWs to protest the BOC’s balikbayan policy was an unnecessary move since the government had already heeded their complaints.

“The issue has already been resolved. Even the President had instructed to stop the implementation of the new rules,” Assistant Secretary Charles Jose, spokesperson for the DFA said in a news briefing.

Militant groups led by migrant advocate Migrante International declared on Friday as “Zero Remitance Day,” when groups and communities in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Middle East, Vietnam, Thailand, United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Australia, Switzerland and other parts of the world had participated, Migrante said.

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