Villanueva on alleged ‘pastillas’ racket: ‘Happy days are back for corrupt’

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The allegations of a new racket involving payouts to immigration officers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) by travel agencies representing foreign workers only show that “happy days are back for the corrupt,” according to Senator Joel Villanueva.

Villanueva reiterated the pressing need for suspending Philippine offshore gaming operations (POGO) given the latest incident involving the Bureau of Immigration (BI) personnel facilitating the entry of Chinese nationals, most of whom are believed to be on their way to work at online gambling firms.

“It’s clear that from what is happening now that happy days are back for the corrupt,” said Villanueva, chair of the Senate Committee on Labor, Employment, and Human Resources Development, in a statement.

“The government is having trouble regulating these POGOs. They are not paying taxes, they are challenging the bounds of our laws, they are not creating jobs for Filipinos,” he added. “We call on the government to suspend POGO firms until it is able to rein in wayward companies who skirt around our laws.” 

The latest allegation of corruption could probably be the fourth incident in a string of illegal activities involving BI personnel starting in 2016, according to the senator who started the legislative inquiry into the influx of illegal foreign workers that year.

Public hearings into the influx of illegal foreign workers in the 17th Congress resulted to the arrest of BI deputy commissioners Al Argosino and Michael Robles, who are accused of extorting and receiving P50 million from casino operator Jack Lam. Argosino and Robles have subsequently been charged before the Sandiganbayan awaiting trial.

The senator also uncovered a racket in the BI’s satellite office in Taguig where immigration staff ask for a P5,000 expedite fee to speed up the processing of special working permits (SWP). The exposé also triggered a review of the BI’s charter, with Villanueva questioning the agency’s authority to issue SWPs.

As an offshoot of the inquiry, the government organized an interagency task force on foreign workers, chaired by the Department of Labor and Employment, which sought to unify the efforts of different agencies on the issue.

Villanueva likewise cited a report in July last year where a number of immigration agents were accused of running an “escort service” for illegal foreign workers. Agents reportedly fetched foreigners, who allegedly plan to stay in the country to work in POGO companies, right after disembarking the plane and whisked them through different queues. 

“We are dismayed that it appears the rise of POGOs are triggering the rise in corruption among government workers and crimes in general,” the senator said. “The instances are already overwhelming and the only logical solution our government should do is to suspend POGOs.”

At the Senate labor committee last week, representatives of the government’s economic cluster said the proposed POGO suspension would have minimal impact to the country’s gross domestic product, which is estimated to be around 0.04 percent of GDP only.

Estimated foregone revenues from POGOs are at least P50 billion in taxes on corporate income, withholding, and franchise, among other levies due to the government. /Stacy Ang

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