Press protest over strict checks, hiked fees on balikbayan boxes
MANILA (PhlDigest) – Many Filipinos working and living abroad stopped sending their remittances to their loved ones in the Philippines for one day on August 28 in protest over strict checks on their “balikbayan” boxes and the goverment’s plan to imposes higher taxes or fees on the boxes and contents.
The non-remittance may have involved some $3.1 bilion, according to Sen. Francis Escudero even as Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Rep. Lito Atienza called on the Aquino administration, especially Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima and Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina, to apologize to the OFWs.
OFWs sent a record $29 billion in remittances to the Philippines in 2014 and the amount could rise by five percent each year. The remittances help bouy up the country’s economy, making the OFWs modern day heroes of the nation
Aside from the campaign for one day non-remittance, the OFWs have called on Filipinos living and working abroad and their millions of relatives in the Philippines not to support the candidates of President Benigno Aquino III and the administration in the 2016 elections.
The call was immediately shrugged by Malacanang, stating that it is up to the overseas Filipino workers to choose the candidates they want in the next election.
A Palace official made the statement in reaction to statements that migrants organizations are initiating a “zero vote” campaign against administration candidates. The OFWs carried out a “zero remittance day” and some groups are allegedly planning a zero vote for administration candidates as a response to a customs policy on balikbayan boxes.
“Karapatan po nilang mamili kung sino po ang gusto nilang iboto sa darating na eleksyon,” Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said during a radio interview on Saturday about the planned campaign.
“Ang inaasahan lang po natin ay, siyempre, mababase po ito sa plataporma; mababase po ito doon sa ano po ba ‘yung ikagaganda pa ng ating bansa, at ‘yung ikabubuti pa ng buhay ng ating mga pamilya,” she told dzRB Radyo Ng Bayan.
“Kalayaan natin lahat ‘yan, kung paano po natin sasalain ang ating mga kandidato.”
OFWs are furious over a new Customs policy on balikbayan boxes. The Bureau of Customs said balikbayan boxes are being used as a means to smuggle goods or ship illegal narcotics.
Valte said OFWs are free to express their sentiments on any issue like the one on balikbayan boxes.
The Palace official also said that because of the balikbayan box issue, they got a lot of messages from different parts of the world.
“At ang lagi ko pong sinasabi sa kanila ay malaya silang ipahayag ang kanilang mga saloobin whether they join a ‘no remittance day’ or they may send government a message on Facebook or they can post their sentiments online or magpa-interview sila sa media,” she said.
According to the Bangko Setral ng Pilipinas, the zero remittance day has no significant impact on the economy but migrant groups warned of more mass actions against plans to tighten rules on balikbayan boxes.
Sen. Escudero said the government stood to lose some P3.1 billion in the one day zero remittance campaign of the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), personal remittances from OFWs in 2014 set an all-time high for the country at $26.93 billion, which accounted for 8.5 percent of the gross domestic product last year.
During the first half of 2015, the BSP reported that personal remittances from OFWs grew by 6.2 percent to $12.7 billion from $11.9 billion in the same period last year. On the average, Filipino workers across the globe sent a combined remittance of $2.014 billion per month from January to June this year.
Escudero said a one-day remittance boycott could translate to losses of over $67 million, or some P3.1 billion (at P46.61 exchange rate), for the Philippine economy–money which could have been spent for the basic necessities of relatives of OFWs here such as food, clothing, shelter and utilities.
“The OFWs play a major part of the Philippine economy and its sustainability, so I don’t understand why the BOC (Bureau of Customs) targets the OFWs in its anti-smuggling campaign,” Escudero said. “This is not the way to treat our modern-day heroes. I say no to physical inspection of balikbayan boxes. The BOC should run after big-time smugglers.”
“The proposed policy is anti-migrant and will only fuel serious backlash like a boycott on the remittances sent by OFWs,” he added.
Senator Marcos, Jr. urged Commissioner Lina to issue a public apology to all overseas Filipino workers in light of his agency’s catastrophic communications blunder that jeopardized the image and reputation of Filipinos overseas.
Marcos cited the clarification issued by Lina after Lina’s meeting with President Aquino and Secretary Purisima that the real target of the Bureau of Customs in its campaign for random checks on balikbayan boxes were “erring freight forwarding companies” that have allowed or are complicit in inserting illegal contraband like drugs and firearms into consolidated shipments.
“By linking smuggling to the iconic balikbayan box used by millions of overseas Filipino workers worldwide, the Bureau of Customs has put at risk the reputation and image of our modern-day heroes. A public apology is necessary to correct whatever adverse impression the balikbayan controversy had made on the positive image of our workers overseas. I am sure Commissioner Lina would understand the need to correct such misimpression because the jobs and collective image of our workers may be at stake,” the senator from Ilocos Norte and Leyte pointed out.
It was during the time of President Ferdinand Marcos that the balikbayan phenomenon started, when an Executive Order was issued to grant overseas contract workers (OCWs) the right to bring or send home tax-free care packages to their families provided the contents were not of commercial quantity.
Marcos said it was not enough that the random checks on balikbayan boxes were halted through a presidential directive. “The presidential directive must find its way into an official document and in the crafting of such document, the OFW sector deserves to be heard. As I’ve said earlier, no reforms can take place without the cooperation and support of key stakeholders.”
The Nacionalista Party stalwart said a public apology was the least that Customs Chief Alberto Lina can do to finally ease the anxieties and anger of millions of OFWs. “This apology must be made of public record so that the foreign employers and host governments would know that OFWs were never the real targets of the BoC’s anti-smuggling drive.”