Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago on Monday said the Bureau of Customs should first rid its ranks of thieves before coming up with rules desecrating the care (balikbayan) boxes sent by overseas workers to their families.
“It is one thing to inspect balikbayan boxes, another to desecrate them. The Bureau of Customs [BOC] seems aware that balikbayan boxes, when opened by their personnel, are
sometimes pillaged. What have officials done to rid their ranks of thieves?” she said in a statement.
Santiago has filed Senate Resolution 1534 directing the Senate to investigate the issue, which rattled Filipino migrant workers and their families.
The BOC last week pushed for the implementation of tighter rules on balikbayan box shipments that include random inspection and strict implementation of the $500 limit on dutiable and taxable items. The move, Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina said, was meant to curb smuggling and crack down on people who abuse balikbayan privileges extended to Filipino migrants.
“The government must strive to achieve the delicate balance between, on the one hand, fulfilling its mandate to curb smuggling, and, on the other, protecting balikbayan boxes, which are often channels of intimate communication among families. Further, the Bureau of Customs, in the performance of its mandate to scrutinize all shipments into the country, must constantly improve its facilities, including, among others, non-intrusive inspection equipment such as X-ray scans,” Santiago said.
President Benigno Aquino 3rd also on Monday announced that he is set to meet with key BOC officials to discuss the balikbayan box issue.
“Ngayong hapon mag-re-review kami. I called Secretary of Finance Cesar Purisima and BOC Commissioner Bert Lina to a meeting as soon as I get back to Manila and review this whole proposal,” the President said in Cebu City.
“The primary aim of this measure is to help in the campaign against the smuggling of illegal drugs. We’re also getting reports that there are those who sneak in bullets and guns and even disassembled big motorcycles which are shipped through different boxes to evade taxes,” he added in Filipino.
Aquino assured the public that there will be safeguards to prevent abuse.
“I was told that the balikbayan boxes will be made to pass through an X-ray and if there are suspicious images seen, that’s the time the boxes are opened for physical inspection.
There will be independent observers to watch over the process to disabuse the minds of our compatriots that there will be pilferage,” he said.
Defending the measure, Customs Commissioner Lina said the bureau is just implementing the law to address technical smuggling.
He added that the government is losing P50 million a month in revenues because of technical smuggling made through balikbayan boxes.
Lina said the Tariff and Customs Code empowers the BOC to inspect balikbayan boxes.
“If my predecessors were lax in implementing it, then I’m sorry, but I will do my job,” he added.
The BOC chief advised Filipino migrants as well as returning overseas workers to be honest with their declaration in the bill of lading and packing list about the contents of their boxes.
Lina reminded overseas Filipinos to be wary on the quantity of goods they are sending and ensure that each kind does not exceed 12 pieces, warning that beyond that is already considered as commercial quantity and subject to duties and taxes.
“We will see it on the bill of lading and we will take your word for it. Honesty is the best policy. We rely on the honesty of the sender as his or her signature appears on the invoice and packing list. Don’t fake it,” he said.
The Customs chief called on Congress to revisit the duty-free cap on personal things sent by overseas Filipinos that is embodied in the proposed Customs Modernization Tariff Act.
The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has joined the snowballing move to pressure the BOC to abandon its plan to inspect balikbayan boxes.
“The balikbayan box is part of Filipino culture and tradition and I don’t think OFWs [overseas Filipino workers]will abuse this tradition to send in or smuggle contraband that will put them and their families in danger,” Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said.
She also called on Lina to reconsider his directive, saying balikbayan boxes are very personal to and close to the heart of OFWs, hence, not a commercial transaction.
“Filipinos in general, and OFWs in particular, have a long-cherished tradition of caring and sharing with families, neighbors and friends, and this tradition is symbolized by the balikbayan box,” Baldoz said.
Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte joined critics in condemning the BOC, saying the agency is only looking for ways to milk Filipinos working and living abroad.
“Let us stop treating our foreign workers and all Filipinos living abroad like milking cows.
They deserve a better deal,” Duterte said.
He added that the failure of the government to curb smuggling is not the fault of the OFWs and Filipinos living abroad.
“Kung bugok ang gobyerno, dili dapat ang tawo ang mag-antos [Filipinos should not be made to suffer the consequences of a government run by stupid officials],” Duterte said.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares accused the government of being overly obsessed with siphoning off as much money as it could from taxpayers.
“This is nothing more but a fund-raising for the government. It can allot P30 billion for risk management programs and yet shake down OFWs for P600 million? This government’s obsession with revenues is unjust,” Colmenares said in a news conference.
Moreover, he said the Customs’ P145 million worth of newly-purchased X-rays and the presence of K-9 sniffing dogs should be enough to stop any contraband in balikbayan boxes.
“A large budget was granted to the Customs bureau for X-ray, sniffing dogs and other equipment…as much as P145 million. But instead of using these equipment, the Bureau of Customs would rather waste time, personnel and effort to meticulously inspect balikbayan boxes. This would only allow corrupt Customs officials to further victimize our hapless OFWs,” Colmenares added.
WITH JEFFRY TUPAS AND LLANESCA T. PANTI