DESPITE intense criticisms from lawmakers and various groups, the Bureau of Customs (BOC) is not backing down on its plan to “crack down” on balikbayan boxes to deter smuggling.
Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina on Sunday clarified that the bureau is not imposing additional taxes on balikbayan boxes.
“We are not after the OFWs [overseas Filipino workers]or their pasalubong [homecoming presents]to [their]families. We are after the smugglers who have resorted to using the 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,” Lina said in a statement.
“Stricter compliance is necessary because the rules on consolidated shipments have been abused. The Customs bureau has no plans of abusing the OFWs. What we want is to stop the abuses on the system being perpetrated by smugglers,” he added.
Lina explained that the government is losing revenues through smuggling activities using balikbayan boxes.
Thus, the bureau will conduct spot checks on such boxes.
“Existing rules on the balikbayan boxes still apply, including inspection as stipulated in the law,” the BOC chief said.
“The contents of a balikbayan box must not exceed $500 in value. Canned goods, grocery items and other household effects must not exceed a dozen a kind, while apparels, whether used or new, must not exceed three yards per cut. Only one consignment per sender during a one-month period is allowed,” Lina further explained.
Started in the 1980s, balikbayan boxes are duty-and tax-free packages of personal effects sent by Filipinos residing or working abroad to their families in the Philippines.
Though often shipped by freight forwarders, such boxes can be brought in by Filipinos returning to the Philippines by air.
Lina warned Customs inspectors against tampering with or stealing anything from boxes that will be randomly inspected.
The new policy had generated a wave of criticisms from Congress, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and labor and OFW groups.
Balanga Bishop Ruperto Santos said the move clearly shows the government’s lack of concern for OFWs.
“Government fails to protect their rights and now even balikbayan boxes are not spared, As they open those boxes, they are exposing those hard-earned goods [to]abuses,” said Santos, who heads the Commission for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People of the CBCP.
“We oppose this disheartening action [that shows lack of]concern for our OFWs. Those things inside [the balikbayan boxes]are for personal use,” the prelate added.
Lawmakers are also against the Customs policy.
Rep. Roy Señeres Sr. of OFW party-list said the House of Representatives may investigate the controversy.
Representatives Neri Colmenares and Carlos Zarate of Bayan Muna said they will file a resolution seeking an inquiry into the bureau’s proposal.
“I personally warn Customs to immediately stop this insane system. There have been reports that a lot of corruption is taking place in the opening of boxes and other padala [gifts]. I have personal experience on this graft myself. I will give Customs hell when their budget is tabled. President [Benigno] Aquino [3rd] should order the stopping of this new discriminatory revenue-generation scheme,” Colmenares told The Manila Times in a text message.
Señeres said the opening and inspection of balikbayan boxes is “dangerous” since it could lead to pilferage.
Colmenares voiced the same fear.
“If continued, this practice will just be another source of corruption. This will also slow down the process and further congest ports,” he said. “We will definitely scrutinize this issue and we will do all we can to stop it.”
Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan of Gabriela also questioned the BOC’s proposal.
“Families of OFWs look forward to receiving these hard-earned goodies from their relatives who are practically breaking their backs, slaving away in foreign shores to earn for their families! And now the BOC is training its eyes on these balikbayan boxes while container vans are allowed to slip in without undergoing inspection and taxes? Luxury cars can glide in like invisible phantoms under the very noses of the BOC! Yet the pasalubong (gifts) of OFWs which do not cost millions must be inspected. This is a highly emotional issue. The BOC better backtrack,” she said.
SENATORS were outraged with the plan of the Bureau of Customs (BOC) to randomly inspect balikbayan boxes which some of them considered as “shameless.” They adviced Customs officials to be ready to defend themselves when the chamber begins deliberation on the agency’s 2016 budget.
Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. also blasted the BOC.
“Have you no shame? 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. 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 said.
Senator Ralph Recto vowed to grill BOC officials on the status of non-intrusive inspection techniques, which could detect contraband goods without opening balikbayan boxes.
Recto said programs targeting big-time smugglers are already funded under the BOC operating budget for this year, including the P298 million for the maintenance of 30 X-ray machines installed in the country‘s 10 biggest ports.
Senator Cynthia Villar also wants the BOC to explain the directive on the opening of balikbayan boxes.
“It was only yesterday when our OFWs complained about their boxes taking as much as six months before reaching their families when we had the problem of port congestion. Now, they have to deal with this unclear policy of opening and tampering with their boxes by the BOC,” Villar said.
WITH JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA