“I apologize if we have hurt anyone.”
Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina on Thursday apologized to migrant Filipinos for the anxiety and confusion brought about by the purported plan to subject all balikbayan (care) boxes to inspection.
Appearing before the Senate ways and means committee, Lina clarified that they were not targeting overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) when they said the measure was meant to curb smuggling.
According to Lina, the Bureau of Customs (BOC) is working on new procedures that will benefit OFWs.
“I apologize if we have hurt anyone. I gave my 200 percent support for them. Just wait for the new procedures for OFWs,” Lina said after he was pressed by Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to correct the adverse impression the balikbayan box controversy had made on the positive image of the so-called modern-day heroes.
In an earlier statement, he made it clear that the real target of the BOC in pushing for the physical inspection of boxes are the “erring freight forwarding companies” that have allowed or are complicit in inserting contraband like drugs and firearms into consolidated shipments.
President Benigno Aquino 3rd ordered the BOC to stop the implementation of the balikbayan box policy.
“I’m happy that you have retracted this policy. All that is left is when are you going to admit to your mistake [and]when are you going to realize that it is anti-Filipino,” Marcos told Lina during the hearing.
OFW groups welcomed Lina’s public apology and said they are looking forward to contributing to the creation of a special provision in the proposed Customs Modernization and Tariff Act (CMTA), which is being studied by the committee on ways and means headed by Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara.
Angara said he is preparing a draft committee report on the CMTA and he expects the report to be ready by the end of the month.
Increased tax exemption
The BOC, during the hearing, pushed for a 15-fold increase in the exemption of household and personal goods being brought home in shipping containers by returning residents and a hundred-fold increase in the value of goods shipped via parcels or balikbayan boxes from abroad.
Lina called on Representatives to hasten the passage of the CMTA.
The BOC chief told members of the Senate that the immediate passage of the CMTA would benefit Filipinos abroad who “simply want to share their blessings with their loved ones here.”
“At present, the exemption for returning residents who bring home their personal and household goods contained in shipping containers is a measly 10,000 pesos; we believe it would be fair and compassionate to increase this to 150,000 pesos or even more,” he said.
In a presentation made to the Senate, Lina reported that the BOC would also support moves to raise the “outdated and unreasonable” tax threshold exemption currently at 10 pesos to a de minimis value exemption of 10,000 pesos, so that incoming goods brought in by parcels or balikbayan boxes and with a value of 10,000 pesos or less will already be exempt from Customs duties. The amount of 10,000 pesos will be subject to periodic increase.”
Deputy Commissioner for Assessment and Operations Agaton Uvero explained that the BOC would be putting in place measures that would reassure the public that packages sent from abroad would be treated with care.
“All of us, even Customs employees, have relatives in other countries. We empathize with those who have aired their concerns about the balikbayan boxes they get from abroad and we commit to do all that we can to address these concerns,” Uvero said.
He added that among the measures the BOC would implement are mandatory X-ray examination of balikbayan boxes and K-9 inspections to prevent the entry of contraband items, the elimination of random inspections and the installation of CCTVs in inspection areas.
Only cargo found to be suspicious will be subject to physical inspection, and only in the presence of an Overseas Workers Welfare Office representative or OFW association representative, and a consolidator representative.
Meanwhile, the Senate ways and means committee learned that the current BOC leadership has no basis to justify the implementation of its policy of physically inspecting the OFW boxes.
The bureau has been claiming that the reason why they imposed the new policy on balikbayan boxes is that they have received reports that the boxes are being used by syndicates to smuggle illegal drugs and firearms into the country.
But when Marcos asked Deputy Customs Commissioner Jessie Dellosa if there have been incidents where a balikbayan box was found to contain illegal drugs or guns, the Customs official said there was none.
“So far, your honor, negative [when it came to]balikbayan boxes,” Dellosa said, adding that the boxes only contained commercial goods.
Marcos then asked Lina what is his basis for instituting a policy of physically opening balikbayan boxes when the bureau has no record of such boxes found containing arms and drugs.
But Lina insisted that they have information that the balikbayan boxes are being used to smuggle illegal items such as drugs and firearms.
Former Customs Commissioner Rufino Biazon, who was also present in the hearing, told the committee that they had intercepted guns in balikbayan boxes when he was head of the agency.
He said they found a baby Armalite rifle and a .45 caliber pistol in a balikbayan box in Cebu sometime in March 2013.