President Rodrigo Duterte has rejected suggestions to suspend the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGO) industry activities in the country, most of which are Chinese-run, even with allegations of corruption and other crimes hounding the industry, Malacanang said on Sunday.
In a radio interview, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said government revenues from POGOs could be used to fund measures aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-2019).
“He (Duterte) will not suspend it nor will he stop it,” Panelo said.
Panelo said the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) reported to Duterte that POGO operations are “okay”.
Panelo, also Duterte’s chief legal counsel, said the Philippines “needs funds coming from POGO operations,” which he pegged at “P17 billion in the last 3 years.”
“We have a lot of projects that are in need of funding,” Panelo said.
“You need to substantiate those kinds of allegations. The President cannot be listening to tsismis (rumors) or accusations without evidence,” Panelo said, in reaction to allegations of corruption.
“We welcome any investigation coming from the Senate because in the process there may be some proof to those allegations,” he added.
Panelo said he had “not heard of any report that will alarm us as if it’s a virus, it’s a contagion that is being committed by these operators or personnel of POGO operations.”
PAGCOR earlier said that it earned P8 billion from regulatory fees imposed on two percent of POGOs’ gross gaming revenues.
From 2017, when the PAGCOR started regulating POGOs, revenues had reached P18 billion to date.
POGOs also provided employment to 19,000 Filipinos.
But the Anti-Money Laundering Council also said that at least P14 billion worth of POGO transactions were suspicious. This was downplayed by Panelo.
“Yung mga problema diyan sa operations, yan ay magagawan ng paraan. All you have to do is to implement established laws and regulations,” Panelo said.
Despite the supposed benefits of POGOs to the country, the industry has been marred controversial, particularly on its effects on the local economy, national security, and its social cost to the Filipino people.
In a House of Representatives resolution, the Bayan Muna party-list group said that while POGO is expected to generate additional revenues for the government, it was hounded by serious issues, particularly over monitoring its revenues and the “unbridled” entry of foreign workers without valid work permits.
The rise of POGOs in the country had increased tensions between Filipino and Chinese workers, as well as displaced the livelihoods of communities in to order to make room for the construction of POGOs.
Some lawmakers had called for a suspension of POGOs after a number of crimes, including bribery for the entry of Chinese workers, trafficking, prostitution, money laundering and tax violations, among others, were discovered to have been associated to the industry.
A Senate inquiry saw several immigration officers, allegedly in cahoots with Chinese and Filipino travel agencies, pocketing P10,000 for every Chinese national allowed to enter the country as tourists and later work in gambling hubs.
The same Senate probe revealed that sex trafficking in the country rose due to the influx of Chinese POGO workers.
Senator Richard Gordon also flagged some US$446 million that entered the country in the past five months, which he said was likely laundered through the purchase of POGO properties and investments.
On Sunday, Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers joined calls for the shutdown of POGOs, saying that although it has “brought income and investments to the country, the benefits fail miserably due to many of its social ills.”
Barbers, who chairs the House Committee on Dangerous Drugs, suspected POGO hubs to be “safe havens” for those involved in illegal drugs and money laundering, and may have even encouraged operations of the Golden Triangle drug syndicate in the country.
Barbers noted that of the 60 POGOs granted permits by PAGCOR, only 11 are registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission./Stacy Ang