OFW representatives to attend probe on balikbayan box inspection

MANILA – Leaders of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) groups will appear in the congressional probe into the Bureau of Customs (BOC)’s planned inspection of balikbayan boxes this week.

John Bertiz, spokesperson for the coalition of OFWs groups, said their leaders have agreed that a congressional inquiry is the appropriate venue for them to express their concerns and suggestions considering that the hearings are a public record, while a dialogue with BOC officials may be more nebulous in character.

“While we welcome every opportunity to hold a dialogue with the BOC, we decided to consolidate our concerns and include all these in our presentation before members of the Senate and House of Representatives in the presence of BOC and other stakeholders,” Bertiz said in a statement.

“We are preparing our proposals for our legislators and for the BOC to note and consider. The legislative hearings offer a fair, transparent, open, and constructive platform for long-term solutions so that the balikbayan fiasco would never happen again,” he added.

The House committee on overseas workers affairs will conduct the hearing on Wednesday, while the Senate ways and means committee set a public hearing on Thursday.

Earlier, the BOC announced its plan to randomly inspect balikbayan boxes sent home by OFWs to detect contraband hidden in corrugated boxes. But OFWs have expressed concern over the safety and integrity of their balikbayan boxes.

President Aquino has stopped the planned inspection, saying the BOC should find another means of detecting contraband.

Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima said all containers of balikbayan boxes should undergo mandatory x-ray and K-9 examination at no cost to the sender or the OFW. “Only in cases where there are derogatory findings from the x-ray or K-9 examination will there be a physical inspection of goods.”

“In the event of a physical inspection, the Bureau of Customs will request that an Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) representative or a designated officer of an OFW association be present, with provisions for CCTV monitoring of the inspection areas,” he explained.

OFW Family party-list Rep. Juan Revilla, however, said his constituents do not trust the BOC. The anger of OFWs “was the result of their years of terrible experiences in the hands of corrupt Customs personnel.”

“Our OFWs just do not trust the BOC or this government. Even before this issue incited the anger of OFWs, we were already made aware of the different problems faced by those sending packages to their loved ones in the country,” Revilla said.

“Families of OFWs report lost items, incidents of overcharging of duties, and unreasonable delays in the release of their boxes. These horror stories are so commonplace that you cannot blame our OFWs if they have little faith in the capacity of the BOC to stop abuses in the course of doing its job,” he added.

Due to their bad experiences with Customs and immigration and other airport personnel, OFWs are also clamoring for “fresh, untainted leadership to Customs and our government.”

“As long as we have leaders who are suspected of using the BOC for campaign fund-raising and other shenanigans, their actions, even well-intentioned, will always be suspect,” Revilla said.

He said his party-list group is now examining the qualification of presidential aspirants before choosing who among them it would support in 2016.

“At this point, Senators Grace Poe and Francis Escudero appear to have an edge in presenting themselves as leaders our people can trust. In numerous hearings at the Senate, the two have shown they are interested in protecting the welfare of our citizens and workers,” he added.

A week after the BOC announced its plan to inspect balikbayan boxes, the agency imposed an import tax of almost P6,000 on the championship belt of mixed martial arts athlete Jujeath Nagaowa.

Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. reminded the BOC that the law exempts medals, awards and similar recognition from import duties.

“If the law grants certain privileges or incentives to our OFWs and athletes, the bureaucratic procedures must lean towards making it easy for them to enjoy such privileges. Otherwise, it is no longer a privilege but a burden,” Marcos said.

“The government should learn from the experience in the balikbayan box brouhaha. It must show its sincerity in its appreciation of the invaluable contributions of our Filipino compatriots who are either working abroad or competing for the glory of our country,” he added.

Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina promised Nagaowa of a refund and a change in the process.

Marcos said he would take the opportunity during the hearings for the 2016 national budget to find out if the BOC indeed made good on its promise to revise its procedure.

Marcos noted that there are similar instances where straightforward procedures for the implementation of government policies are not in place.

He cited the case of cooperatives that are granted tax exemption status, but have difficulty in availing of this exemption because of documentary and other requirements of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. As a result, many cooperatives are forced to pay taxes under protest.