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Presidential hopefuls Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte can’t help but hide their deep displeasure about how Bureau of Customs (BoC) is aiming to open randomly-selected gift boxes from Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), in the reasoning of searching for contraband and smuggled articles.

Locally called “Balikbayan Boxes” (homecoming gifts) the boxes were recently pointed as means of smuggling prohibited items by the bureau, to the sharp protest of political figures and the OFWs, who claim that the inspection may merely result in stolen items from the boxes.

Duterte is having none of those explanations.

“Those Balikbayan boxes are sacred. They are an expression of love and affection. Nobody should be allowed to make a mockery of this sentimental bond between an OFW and his family back home,” Duterte said.

Duterte said that every little thing inside a balikbayan box was a fruit of months of savings and hard work and prying through it is callous and insensitive.

“Alam ba ng mga taga Customs na pati ang pag-arrange ng mga pasalubong ay may emotional meaning? (Does the Customs know even the items’ arrangements have an emotional meaning?)” he asked.

Duterte acknowledged that balikbayan boxes could be used to skip taxes but the BoC’s move was not the solution.

“Indeed, this privilege is subject to abuse by people who use it to smuggle dutiable items but there are other ways to address this problem,” Duterte said.

The mayor said BoC Commissioner Alberto Lina, who owns Air21, was aware that forwarding companies could enforce mechanism against this.

“Commissioner (Alberto) Lina, who owns a forwarding company, knows pretty well that the safeguards could be implemented by the forwarding companies from the points of shipment,” Duterte said.

Lina earlier said that he already sold his shares in the company and ensured that he would have no conflict of interest as BoC commissioner.

Respecting the responsibility and mandate of the BoC, Duterte said the agency should be more sensitive in whatever action they do because they must consider the feelings of OFWs who are even considered as modern day heroes.

“There are more sophisticated ways of checking illegal activities exploiting the Balikbayan Box system. The OFWs should not be made to suffer for the incompetence of people at the Bureau of Customs,” Duterte said.

“People should not be made to suffer when dumb persons run government,” Duterte added.

The mayor criticized the BOC for being harsh on small boxes sent by OFWs while they are toothless against big and organized smuggling activities.

“They failed in stopping the smuggling of rice, pork meat, chicken, garlic and onions, why don’t they address these problems first?” Duterte said.

Instead of making OFWs suffer, the government should focus in protecting the rights of every Filipino working outside the country, Duterte said.

“Let’s put an end to the exploitation of these people who have sacrificed a lot working away from their families just to secure a better future for their children,” the mayor said.

And this exploitation, Duterte said, includes the money-making schemes enforced by the government.

“They are asked to pay so many fees just to work abroad and they are required to get licenses and permits,” he said.

“And when they come home, they are being shortchanged at the airports and robbed by taxi drivers and even ‘kotong’ cops,” Duterte added.

The tough-talking mayor said that the government must also recognize and act on the cases of exploitation abroad where many Filipino workers were forced to work long hours and were subjected to many abuses most especially the women.

“Gobyerno na ang nagkulang tapos ngayon gobyerno pa rin ang lumalabas na nanggigipit sa kanila, (Government has been remiss and now government is the one harassing them)” Duterte said.

Meanwhile, the customs agency denied motives of stealing or encroaching into the boxes, and replied that they are simply doing their job, and the law gives them mandate to open such boxes if necessary and probable cause is present.

It said that tougher rules will be imposed to curb the practice of traders of using balikbayan boxes to smuggle duty and tax free products into the country.

“We are not after the OFWs or their pasalubong to families. We are after the smugglers who have resorted to using balikbayan boxes and consolidated shipments to smuggle contraband in the country through fake consignees or insertion of smuggled boxes or goods, otherwise known as riders, in consolidated shipments,” the BoC said in a statement.

The government agency said that contrary to reports, it has not announced that it will increase taxes on balikbayan boxes and that it is authorized by law to open boxes.

OFWs took to social media to express their anger on the plan of the BoC to open balikbayan boxes before they will be released to their families.

“To our overseas Filipino workers, the Bureau of Customs is not increasing taxes on the balikbayan boxes nor do we want to impede in existing processes. No such statement on tax increase has been made.”

“Existing rules on the balikbayan boxes still apply, including inspection as stipulated in the law. However, as mentioned before, the bureau is not technologically equipped to inspect all incoming boxes as we want. Alternatively, spot checks have been and will continue to be conducted,” it added.

The BoC said that it cares for the welfare of OFWs.

“Stricter compliance is necessary because the rules on consolidated shipments have been abused. Hindi Customs ang nagbabalak abusuhin ang mga OFWs. Ang gusto namin sa Customs ay matigil na ang pang-aabuso sa sistema na dulot ng smugglers (The BoC does not seek to abuse OFWs. What we want is to stop the abuse done by smugglers),” the statement read.

The BoC estimated that it was losing P50 million a month or P600 million a year due to alleged smuggled goods brought into the country through balikbayan boxes, among others.

The loss is something Bongbong Marcos Jr. finds questionable, and ironically, according to him, exposes the agency’s own incompetence.

“To the BoC, have you no shame?” said Marcos, noting the agency’s “bureaucratic might” against migrant workers sending balikbayan boxes to their families in the guise of an anti-smuggling campaign.

“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,” the senator said.

“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 added.

Marcos warned Customs Commissioner Albert Lina against carrying out further restrictions on the use of balikbayan boxes by the OFWs, including a plan to impose tax or additional fees on forwarding costs for OFW boxes.

As a public servant, Marcos said it is Lina’s duty to consult with stakeholders first before implementing a “draconian” measure that would turn the lives of OFWs “upside-down”.

“You seem bent on bullying our OFWs while turning a blind eye on the large-scale smuggling that goes on in nearly all ports across the archipelago,” the senator said.

The senator then challenged the BoC to justify its move to open balikbayan boxes at random before the Senate during its deliberations on the proposed 2016 national budget.

He also stressed the need to investigate the perennial shortfalls in the collections of the BoC.

“Are they planning to impose taxes on balikbayan boxes to make up for their annual collection deficit? In bullying our OFWs, they managed to expose their own internal deficiencies,” Marcos said.

Marcos said the BOC should first settle the corruption issues within the agency because it is more disturbing than the balikbayan boxes being sent by legitimate OFWs.

Senator Ralph Recto, meanwhile urged the agency to purchase closed-circuit television system to monitor its random inspection of balikbayan boxes.

“There are ways to catch the rat without burning the entire house down.” Recto stressed as he directed the customs to find big-time smugglers, whose budget are already funded under the Bureau of Customs’ operating budget this year 2015.

Recto said that BoC officials will be grilled on the status of non-intrusive inspection techniques, which could detect contraband goods without opening the balikbayan boxes sent home by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Recto chairs the Senate Finance Subcommittee reviewing the BOC budget.

The senator said that P298 million is allotted for the upkeep of 30 x-ray machines installed in the country‘s 10 biggest ports. The machines, which can scan one 40- and 20-foot shipping container in minutes, were acquired in 2006 at $2.5 million each through a loan from the Chinese government.

To remove the need to check parcels for dutiable goods, Recto also urged the government to triple to $1,500 the current allowed value of the contents of balikbayan box exempt from taxes.

He said the $500 allowed value of the contents of balikbayan boxes was set in 1990 — or 25 years ago — and hasn’t been changed since.

Recto said the value of contents of balikbayan boxes do not usually reach $1,000, and that the threshold of balikbayan box value is “a small thing compared to the P2.28 trillion that they sent back home last year.”

The outcry of the netizens and OFWs over the customs agency are expectedly furious. Just like with Duterte and Marcos, the distrust in the agency by the Filipinos is ever resounding.

“If you, Mr. Lina, are really concern about good governance and going after the smugglers, then focus your energy to going after the big fish, big time smugglers. That is, if you have the balls.”

“Can the good BOC chief guarantees that the people who will conduct the inspection don’t have vested interest when his agency is notorious for illegal activities involving money?”

“This is pure bullshit!!!!!”

“Tax or no tax, it is not right to open the balikbayan boxes with the gifts of ofws to their families. It is stealing. where are your manners? Are you sure that ur people are honest?”

“Just another way for you to steal more from poor people!”

“Election is near and the government is looking where to get their funds. Why change the Executive Order No. 206 that provides duty and tax free privileges to OFW. BOC should focus and going after the big time smugglers and criminal elements and not the hardworking OFWs.”

“AND NO ONE BELIEVES THE BOC.”

“Mr. Lina, there’s nothing for us to fear because there’s nothing we hide in our BB. What we fear most is the crocodiles in your bureau. Your bureau is well- known as the Bureau of Crocodiles. Please clean-up the mess in your surroundings before implementing the law. The OFWs don’t trust the employees in your bureau. Give us a reason to trust your bureau.”

“People in general don’t trust this bureau.”

“BoC assures OFWs: We are not after your ‘pasalubong.’ Tell that to the Marines!”

“BoC = BUREAU OF CORRUPTION… FITS VERY WELL – DOJ LIFESTYLE CHECK PLEASE.”

OUR STANCE:

We would like to say there is a real problem here with the smuggling, but we cannot blame the people for being so skeptical against the agency.

Lina needs to show his sincerity and assure no collateral damage in the inspections, if any. Also, the exposed tolerance and proliferation of other smuggling activities need to be curbed, if not stopped, for his reasoning to ever hold water.

Because otherwise, Duterte, Marcos, Recto and the OFWs are all but correct in their point that the customs is just bullying hapless OFWs just to meet their target, when other big fishes are out there scott-free.

That will not help the reputation of the customs agency, and the fact Lina used to work for Air21 magnifies the distrust even further.

Even other politicians, like the much-disliked Jejomar Binay, who has been aiding OFWs, also did not agree with the customs’ reasoning in the face of lackluster anti-smuggling campaign.

But it cannot be denied that the customs have the right to randomly inspect balikbayan boxes for contraband, and that like Lina has said, legitimate OFWs have nothing to fear about inspections.

Inspections, the OFWs have no problems with. The pilferage, on the other hand, is something they dread especially with the indelible allegations of customs being reputably corrupt to the core.

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