Senators rejected the resumption of operations of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators POGOs), citing several concerns like the non-payment of P50 billion in taxes and health concerns amid the prevailing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
The Bureau of Internal Revenue at a Senate hearing in February revealed that the POGOs still owe the government 50 billion pesos in the form of franchise, corporate, and other taxes.
Senate Labor committee chairperson Sen. Joel Villanueva reminded PAGCOR chairman Andrea Domingo that there were only 2 to 3 POGOs which paid their franchise taxes.
He recalled PAGCOR admitted 120 illegal POGOs operating in the country.
“And we are sure its way more than that Just recently, 44 illegal workers were arrested again in Paranaque City,” said Villanueva as he noted that POGOs keep on giving us problems.
Villanueva doubted Domingo’s assurance that only 30 percent of POGOs’ workforce will be allowed to operate only after payment of their back taxes aside from adherence to the General Community Quarantine rules for Business Processing Outsourcing.
“How will they strictly enforce that when they cannot even stop the ones operating illegally under quarantine? There are 120 POGOs illegally operating according to PAGCOR itself,” said Villanueva.
He said their recommendation on protocols for businesses to operate was the regular (weekly) random testing of their workers including those without symptoms. He said this applies all industry.
“POGO is not an exemption. But regardless, POGO should not operate,” Villanueva said.
He also dared Domingo to face his Senate inquiry into POGOs to explain the conflicting data on the number of Filipinos employed in the industry.
He said Domingo should not hide from the Senate hearings.
He had earlier conducted several hearings into the influx of illegal foreign workers in the country, most of whom are employed in POGO companies. Domingo had never attended any of those hearings.
Villanueva said Senate labor panel would likely conduct one more hearing before they collate their findings and come out with a report.
The Senate labor panel would likely conduct one more hearing before they collate their findings in a report, according to the senator.
Last February, Villanueva said PAGCOR data showed only one in two available jobs in the POGO industry go go Filipinos.
But Domingo said Filipinos comprise a quarter of the POGO workforce which debunks reports that the industry favors Chinese
Villanueva said there are 3000 workers in 3 big POGO service providers but no Filipino worker. There are other POGO companies that have one, two, or four Filipino workers.
For her part, Senator Risa Hontiveros said it is a total dismay the government brought back these POGO workers to their jobs rather than Filipinos who lost their work due to the pandemic.
“PAGCOR should explain why it moved to recommend the opening of POGO while there are vehement opinions and serious concerns against it. Why the haste when we are under Enhanced Community Quarantine?” she asked.
She lamented POGOs not only for failure to pay taxes but also for involvement in cases of corruption, money laundering, and sex and human trafficking.
The resumption of POGOs operation, the Akbayan senator said, would mean mobility for at least 120,000 POGO workers, most of them in National Capital Region, the epicenter of the COVID-19 transmission.
She assailed the resumption of POGO operation as undermining the Inter-Agency Task Force’s (IATF) efforts to contain the coronavirus and opening the country to the other problems that POGOs bring.
She warned the resumption as a risk for public health and safety.
“I reiterate my call, it’s pay up and time’s up for POGO,” further stated the opposition senator.
Sen. Leila de Lima also blasted POGOs for evading the government billions of taxes since Day One. “So, how on earth can it “boost state funds” for COVID-19 response?”
She said the continuous operations of POGOs do not serve Filipino interest. Instead, she said they serve the interests of Chinese criminals.
“The fact that they are outlawed in their own country should have made it clear to us that they have no intention of following the law. They are here to line their pockets, nothing more.”
Hontiveros earlier filed a resolution to block POGOs from reopening, adding that government should run after these players so they can pay overdue taxes to boost the government’s COVID-19 response.
In efforts to re-open POGOs initiated by administration officials and allies, Senator Francis Pangilinan lamented the prioritization of the welfare of China in the guise of “boosting state funds” for the fight against Covid-19.
“Are we going to give priority to the jobs of Chinese in POGO while Filipinos have lost their jobs and have gone hungry due to the lockdown? Boost state funds? Eh Department of Finance na nga ang nagsabi na hindi nagbabayad ng bilyong-bilyong pisong buwis ang mga ‘yan,” Pangilinan said.
“How much was their contribution? Where did these contributions go?” he asked.
Domingo said the government’s COVID-19 task force has allowed POGOs to resume operations amid the community quarantine enforced in the country.
According to Domingo, she attended a virtual meeting with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Thursday.
In the same meeting, the IATF approved her recommendation to reopen online gambling services — insisting they are part of the BPO sector, not the gaming sector.
POGO operations have been suspended by PAGCOR since March 15 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
President Rodrigo Duterte has extended community quarantine over the country until May 15 and eased the restrictions on several nonessential businesses. The government has allowed BPOs to resume operations starting Friday.
Domingo said the online gambling services catering to markets outside the Philippines can resume operations once they finalize documents and finish disinfecting their offices.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson, Harry Roque, previously said that should the government allow POGOs to reopen, it can only be attributed to the country’s need for more funding.
Pagcor collects 2% of the total gross profits from POGOs but the Anti-Money Laundering Council reported a discrepancy in the net inflow of money from POGOs, citing that only P7 billion were counted of the P54 billion that flowed in and out of the country./Stacy Ang