Earning OFWs’ ire
In this case, there was no murder conviction, no execution — only a spontaneous and collective uproar over government’s treatment of the iconic balikbayan box. Millions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and their families are angry because for some strange reason, the Bureau of Customs (BoC) have recently decided that the best way to curb smuggling is for it to clamp down on care packages otherwise known as balikbayan boxes sent from abroad.
Customs chief Albert Lina had to make the media rounds to explain the BoC’s side. Unscrupulous people are using balikbayan boxes to smuggle illegal goods, he said. OFWs have nothing to fear unless they are hiding something, he intoned. Lina also pointed out that the BoC has a legal mandate to carry out random checks, meaning it can open at will any balikbayan box that merits suspicion. Cases involving theft of items in an OFW’s care package can be reported to the BoC for appropriate action. However, the Customs chief said that complicity of BoC operatives would have to be proven.
A good communicator, Lina is clearly not, and those within his inner circle needs to tell him that. Filipinos working abroad challenged the BoC to switch places with them so its bureaucrats can learn to appreciate the love that comes with each balikbayan box, every item paid for in blood, sweat, and tears by its OFW sender.
This week, the Palace decided to intervene. President Aquino called Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima and Customs Commissioner Albert Lina to Malacanang. Secretary Purisima shared salient details of the meeting with the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Part of the discussions included specific instances when senders abused their balikbayan box privileges. “For example, gun parts, ammunition, and gun accessories were found in 7 balikbayan boxes, 81,529 tablets of anti-anxiety drugs were misdeclared as food supplements in November 2014, 413 G-Shock watches, and even a custom Harley Davidson Chopper motorcycle of a Hollywood scriptwriter in 2011, among other high end car parts, were also delivered through balikbayan boxes.” Nowhere to be found in the details shared by Purisima were the identities of balikbayan box senders and the actions taken by government to pursue criminal charges against them.
According to Purisima, the President gave specific guidance to the BoC. He said: “First, there will be no random or arbitrary physical inspection of balikbayan boxes. Moving forward, all containers of balikbayan boxes should undergo mandatory X-ray and K-9 examination — at not 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.”
Second, it was also agreed that a representative from the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) or a designated officer of an OFW Association would be present in the event of a physical inspection. Provisions for CCTV monitoring of inspection areas shall also be ensured.
Employees who violate these protocols and engage in pilferage will be prosecuted and punished. Are these steps enough for the OFW sector to cool down? It’s hard to tell. One thing, however, is sure: In attacking the balikbayan box, the BoC roused from political slumber millions of OFWs who are now inclined to intervene in the family’s decision on whom to vote for come 2016.
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