Savvy Filipino consumers have always considered Divisoria, Manila as the place to buy practically anything at the lowest possible price.
Divisoria’s top malls—168, Tutuban Mall, 999, and Lucky Chinatown—are the preferred shopping places rather than the sidewalks of the district because they are safer, cleaner, and offer parking spaces to boot.
Every yearend, there is a sudden increase in the number of retail outlets inside the interconnected malls, and shoppers cannot help but notice that some of them are manned by foreigners, mostly Chinese.
They are not the typical Chinoys or Chinese-Filipinos because the foreigners hardly speak a word of English or Filipino.
This has not been lost on the Bureau of Immigration (BI), which last week conducted a raid inside 168 that netted them 78 foreigners who were selling goods without the proper permit.
Siegfred Mison, BI officer-in-charge, told The Manila Times that the raid was the result of several weeks of undercover work by intelligence operatives.
Most were in the country on a tourist visa, but more than 20 were found to be overstaying.
For working without a permit, the penalty imposed is deportation.
They may not return for at least six months, at least for first time offenders. Those who have committed similar or other infractions of Philippine law may have a more difficult time returning to the country in the future.
Mison sees “a lack of urgency to comply with immigration laws” as the main reason foreigners believe they can engage in business in the country without having to comply with the legal requirements.
He also says that the country’s open arms policy towards all incoming visitors has made it easy to simply come in and engage in business, even if they are officially in the country as tourists, and not businessmen.
The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) is also partly to blame, according to Mison. DOLE is tasked with issuing labor permits to outsiders, and there may be insufficient follow ups as to whether they are working within the confines of the law.
Besides the raid in Divisoria last week, the BI conducted a similar raid in Bacolod some two months ago, and are keeping a keen eye on Cebu, the country’s second biggest tourism market after Metro Manila.
Baguio is another area where foreigners are believed to be engaging in retail trade, and is therefore on the BI’s watchlist.
“There will be more” raids, Mison told The Manila Times.
Under his watch, however, the BI has adopted a kinder, gentler approach, especially for first time offenders.
“We don’t really want to crack the whip” on the offenders, he said, “But sometimes we have to.”
Although rumors flew fast immediately after the raid that a local politician tried to intercede in behalf of the arrested tourists, Mison denies this.
He does admit that the Chinese Chamber of Commerce requested that the visitors be allowed to spend the night at their building, a stone’s throw from the BI headquarters in Intramuros.
Although the country’s Retail Trade Nationalization Act of 1954 banned foreigners from engaging in retail, the law was liberalized in 2000. But foreigners are still not allowed to engage in retail without the proper licenses and permits.
Thus, while foreigners have controlling interests in such retail outlets as the ubiquitous 7-Eleven convenience stores and the huge S&R outlets and are therefore operating legally, the Chinese entrepreneurs caught selling at 168 were not in the same boat.
A reliable source told The Manila Times that the foreign retailers hire Filipino salesmen and women at what can be considered slave wages of P150 a day.
This would be the equivalent of the pay of a “kasambahay” or domestic helper, except the local workers of the foreigners receive no food, housing, or uniform allowance. Still, there is no shortage of Filipinos willing to work at rates well below—not even one-third—the minimum wage of P466/day in Metro Manila.
It is worth noting that Chinese tourists are not among the top three visitors to the Philippines. According to BI records, for the period January 1 to December 5, this year, the top tourists to the country are as follows:
* South Koreans 1,010,056
* Americans (including FilAms) 649,664
* Japanese 371, 122
Chinese (excluding Taiwanese) at 312,395 were the fourth biggest group of visitors to the Philippines.
Still, Chinese entrepreneurs remain number one among the foreigners who try and do business in the country, sans permits.
But they will still face the BI and will be made to pay the fees and permits, whenever possible.
Mison said that the BI expects to exceed its collection target “by at least P100 million this year.”
And if all foreigners who sell their goods and services pay their dues, that figure would go even higher.