Pandora’s Box: Is the Balikbayan Box in trouble?

By , on August 25, 2015

11902591_943971252326679_2366599327308862034_n reported in 2011 that there are over 10 million overseas Filipino workers (OFW) worldwide. That’s more than 10% of the Philippines’ population at that time, which was 92.2 million.

In the period of April to September 2014 alone, OFWs remitted an estimated amount of P173.2 billion, according to the Philippine Statistic Authority’s “2014 Survey on Overseas Filipinos” released May this year. April to September—that’s just six months.

Indeed, they deserve being labeled “modern day heroes” because of the great lengths that they go to in order to provide a better life for their families back in the Philippines. Despite their physical absence in their homes, this “better life” that they strive so hard to achieve often arrive to the Philippines in two ways: monetary remittances and the proverbial balikbayan box.

Recently, the Bureau of Customs announced stricter policies about the mandatory inspection of all balikbayan boxes in order to thwart smugglers and illegal traders who use these boxes to smuggle commercial—often illegal or counterfeit—goods into the country.

President Benigno Aquino III and officials from the Malacanang Palace have expressed their support for the Bureau of Customs and their efforts to stop smugglers.

In a radio interview on August 22, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte assured the public that there is no need to be extremely concerned about BOC’s new rules.

“Our OFWs are not being targeted,” Valte said. “We directed the BOC to ensure that the process is quick and orderly.”

On Monday, August 24, Liberal Party presidential bet and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said, “Tulungan natin ‘yung Customs na gawin ‘yung kanilang trabaho at dapat naman siguraduhin ng gobyerno na wala namang karapatan ng taumbayan na mapipinsala dito.”

(Let us help Customs do their job and the government should also make sure that no damage is done to Filipinos’ rights).

Despite the government’s support, many have cried foul over these tighter policies—including our modern day heroes.

Bureau of Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina (screenshot from UNTV footage)
Bureau of Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina (screenshot from UNTV footage)

Statement from the Bureau
“We are not after the OFWs or their pasalubong [for their] 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,” said Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina in a statement.

At the same time, he clarified that they are not imposing taxes on the balikbayan boxes. “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,” the BOC chief said.

Lina added, “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.”

(It is not the Bureau of Customs who are planning to abuse our OFWs. What we want at Customs is to stop smugglers from abusing the system.)

He noted that the government and industries have suffered loses to these illegal activities. Lina said, “The bureau has paid greatly in revenue losses through these smuggling activities, and more importantly, the affected industries.”

With this, he added that they will continue to implement existing rules, noting the bureau is not equipped to check on incoming packages.

“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 efficiently as we want. Alternatively, spot checks has been and will continue to be conducted,” Lina said.

“I have my duty to protect this country… I have to implement the law,” he said in a separate INQUIRER report.

He also called on the public to report to the Bureau if they found that items from their balikbayan boxes are missing.

“If you have [any] experience [of] receiving severely tampered and/or missing items from your box, then let us know so we can properly help you,” the BOC chief ended.

In a dzMM interview on Sunday night, Lina said that if OFWs and other balikbayan box users have nothing to hide, then they should not be scared of the mandatory inspection.

Kung hindi prohibited, bakit ka matatakot? Kung iyan ay hindi dutiable, bakit ka matatakot?” Lina asked.

(If the contents of the balikbayan boxes are not prohibited, why will you be afraid? If the contents are not dutiable, why will you be afraid?)

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The Public’s Response
On August 22nd, Julius Lajara, an OFW from the United Arab Emirates, started a signature campaign on entitled “STOP Philippine Customs to Impose Tighter Rules for Balikbayan Boxes.”

The petition is urging Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago to stop the BOC from putting these stricter rules into action. After only three days, the petition has gathered close to 82,000 signatures.

On Monday, Santiago posted her response to the petition. According to her, she has “filed Senate Resolution No. 1534, calling for an inquiry, in aid of legislation, on the issue.”

“It is one thing to inspect balikbayan boxes, another to desecrate them,” Santiago wrote. “The Bureau of Customs seems aware that balikbayan boxes, when opened by their personnel, are sometimes pillaged. What have officials done to rid their ranks of thieves?”

In an official statement released Sunday, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto suggested the use of non-invasive methods of inspecting balikbayan boxes.

Recto wrote, “There are ways to catch the rat without burning the entire house down.”

According to the Recto, who is also the Senate Finance Subcommittee Chair, P298 million is already allotted for the maintenance of the 30 x-ray machines in 10 of the country’s biggest ports.

Citing the outdated allowable declared value of the contents in a balikbayan box—which was determined more than 25 years ago—Recto also suggested to triple the current allowable value from US $500 to $1,500, in order to do away with the need away with the need to inspect boxes with lower value.

In an ABS-CBN report, Recto said that raising the allowable value of balikbayan boxes is “a small thing compared to the P2.28 trillion that they sent back home last year.”

In the same report, he adds, “Ibalato na natin sa mga OFWs ang balikbayan boxes kasi ang pagpapadala n’yan sa kanilang mga mahal sa buhay ay isang paraan para mabawasan nila ng konti ang kanilang kalungkutan.

(Let’s give these balikbayan boxes to our OFWs because sending those to their loved ones is one way to somehow ease their loneliness.)


OFWs’ Outcry
The Philippine Canadian Inquirer asked some overseas Filipino workers about their thoughts on BOC’s new rules. Here are their responses.

Mark Pacumio, a landscape supervisor based in Calgary, shared, “For me, what BOC is doing right now is a total load of crap. I understand why they need to implement stricter rules, but it seems that OFWs are being singled out.”

“There are other smuggling techniques that needs more attention other than these hard-earned balikbayan boxes—kahit nga basura, nai-smuggle na din (they were even able to smuggle garbage),” Mark said, referring to the container vans full of hospital waste shipped to the Philippines from Canada.

“I’ve seen pictures of boxes that have been inspected and you will feel really bad for the actual recipient and for the OFW who sent it,” he added. “Right now, I already have a box ready for sending but I am [keeping] myself from sending it because of this issue.”

A caregiver in California, who requested to remain anonymous, shared a common concern of many OFWs.

“[This is an] invasion of privacy,” she wrote. “May chance na pwede nilang nakawin ang pwede nilang kunin…. Hindi na nila naisip yung pinaghirapan ng mga OFW just to fill up those boxes and how much they spent sa pagpapadala n’un.”

(There’s a chance that they [BOC staff] will steal whatever they can take… They’re not even thinking about how hard it is for OFWs to fill up those boxes or how much OFWs spent to send [those boxes].)

Arlyn dela Cruz, a caregiver based in Toronto, shared her disapproval of the Bureau’s new policies. She also shared the difficulty of filling one balikbayan box, which could take anywhere from six months to one year.

Kung walang sale, hindi kami nagpapadala ng mga mamahalin. Kung makabili man ng medyo mahal, yung talagang kailangan lang… Malaki na ang tax namin, may tax pa yung kahon, kaya pinupuno namin talaga para sulit sa tax,” Arlyn wrote. “Kaya nila ginagawa ‘yan kasi alam nilang hindi makakapalag ang mga OFW dahil hindi naming kayang tiisin ang pamilya naming nagugutom.

(If there’s nothing on sale, we can’t send anything. If ever we send something expensive, it’s only because it’s badly needed… We’re already getting taxed a large amount here, then there’s a separate tax for the box itself, that’s why we fill it up to get the most out of the box fees. They’re doing this because they know OFWs can’t do anything because we can’t bear to let our families starve.)

Another OFW working as a Sales and Marketing Coordinator in Manama, Bahrain—who chose to remain anonymous—shared her opinion.

“It’s completely ridiculous!” she wrote. “However you look at it, it just means taxing OFWs one way or another… In a way, we don’t have any choice but to accept this. How else are we [going] to take home large or heavy goods or belongings? Airlines only allow 30 kgs of baggage, it’s simply not enough… I would probably try to limit my purchases and buy only as much or as little as what can fit [in] my luggage.”

She also mentioned having no trouble paying higher taxes and fees, if…

“See, I have no problem in paying more if I see improvements in public service or how they use public funds or what-not. But they don’t. I honestly don’t know what they’re doing with our people’s hard earned money,” she said.

President Benigno Aquino III (Malacanang Photo Bureau)
President Benigno Aquino III (Malacanang Photo Bureau)

P-Noy’s Instructions
In a Philippine Daily Inquirer report released Monday night, President Aquino gave written instructions to the Bureau of Customs regarding the physical inspection of balikbayan boxes.

Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima shared the President’s instructions in an interview with the INQUIRER, saying that the BOC should “establish a more defined protocol” when it comes to thwarting smugglers who are allegedly using balikbayan boxes to sneak commercial goods into the country.

Aquino gave the following orders to the BOC:

  • No random physical inspection of balikbayan boxes;
  • Use x-rays and K9 units to scan and inspect all balikbayan boxes;
  • OFWs sending balikbayan boxes will not shoulder inspection costs;
  • A more thorough, physical inspection is only needed if any suspicious content is identified after scanning the box;
  • An Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) representative must be present during the actual physical inspection of said box/es.

The President’s order encourages everyone with proof of any mishandling or theft of balikbayan boxes and its contents to present said pieces of evidence to Customs Commissioner Alberto ‘Bert’ Lina.

Later that night, the BOC announced the cessation of all physical inspections of balikbayan boxes, as per the President’s instructions.

Ferdinand Patinio (Philippines News Agency) contributed to this report.