Noy stops random inspection of balikbayan boxes
Aurea Calica (The Philippine Star) - August 24, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - President Aquino stopped last night the random or arbitrary inspection of balikbayan boxes from overseas Filipino workers  (OFWs) after it drew flak from various sectors.

As a result of this, the Bureau of Customs (BOC) issued a directive, saying that “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,” it said.

“In the event of an inspection, the bureau 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,” it added.

The BOC warned employees who would violate these protocols and engage in pilferage would be prosecuted and punished.

“We encourage the public to submit videos and photographic evidence of illegal acts to the commissioner of Customs,” it said.

The BOC  said it is confident that public concerns would be addressed while enhancing the state’s capacity to fulfill its obligation to the people.

It is set to hold a demonstration or walkthrough of the system for the media so that the public can see how it works.

The President met with the secretary of finance and the customs commissioner yesterday to discuss the balikbayan issue.

OFWs, netizens up in arms over new balikbayan box rules

Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and their relatives have turned to social media to express their anger over the decision of the Bureau of Customs (BOC) to conduct random inspection of balikbayan boxes entering the country.

Almost 80,000 people have signed an online petition urging Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago to stop the BOC from implementing stricter rules on balikbayan boxes.

“We all know how much corruption is happening in (Customs) right now. We cannot deny it,” wrote United Arab Emirates-based Julius Lajara in a petition.

He questioned the BOC statement saying that OFWs can report to authorities if items were lost in the boxes following the conduct of inspection.

“Who (are) the authorities (whom) they are saying? Even if that happens and we report (the loss), we all know that there will be no good output,” he said.

Less than a week after it started, thousands have joined Lajara in his call.

“I’m signing because the items inside our balikbayan boxes are the fruits of our hard earned money, blood, tears, sadness, hunger, insults, our forgotten dignity, our sacrifices to be away from our loved ones, all our Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries spent alone in a very hot and humid country, being sick alone and still getting up because we are required to,” said Bahrain-based Mariefe Raya.

Zyrelle Deleon from Qatar said the random inspection is against the right to privacy of an overseas worker.

“This will only lead to a massive form of corruption and the victims will be the OFWs who have been working so hard just to provide a better future for their families which our government failed to accomplish for the past years,” she said.

BOC Commissioner Alberto Lina earlier announced plans to implement stricter rules on inspection of balikbayan boxes, which he said are being used to smuggle commercial goods into the country.

But he clarified that the agency does not plan to impose higher taxes on these boxes.

Long, winding thread

On Facebook, a post of deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte gathered hundreds of comments from OFWs complaining against the inspection policy of the BOC.

“For those with concerns, comments, reports on the BOC balikbayan box regulation, please post your comments on this thread. I am compiling your posts so you can all be heard by the BOC,” Valte said.

Some of the comments pointed at the “desecration” allegedly committed by BOC personnel when inspecting the boxes. Some also reported losing some of the contents in the boxes.

Many asked that the boxes instead be inspected using x-ray machines or scanners to avoid such incidents.

Even presidential sister and actress Kris Aquino, who received a barrage of complaints, has weighed in on the issue.

“I already forwarded your concerns which you very clearly stated on my thread in my previous post to those in a position to not only address them but hopefully study, clarify and act on policies that have a direct impact on you, your sacrifices and your love for family that motivates not just you, but all of us to work hard,” said the actress in a post on her Instagram account.

“I make no promises because I’m not in government, but your concerns did not fall on deaf ears, and in my own small and humble way I do hope I was able to help,” she added.

Various memes and open letters have also circulated online, with many calling on the BOC to instead focus on catching the big smugglers instead of picking on the balikbayan boxes sent by OFWs.

Balikbayan box rules

Based on the BOC website, only non-commercial goods or goods not in commercial quantity which are strictly for personal use, such as wearing apparel, clothing, food, grocery items and canned goods are allowed in balikbayan boxes.

Rules also state that the value of the contents of each box should not exceed $500.

“One consignor or sender is allowed to send one box during a six-month period,” added the rules.

The BOC also said that 100 percent examination of consolidated shipment is necessary to protect the interests of the government and the sender, as well as curb smuggling activities.

In defending the stricter rules on inspection, the agency cited an instance when they found appliances such as refrigerators concealed in the boxes.

Safeguards in place

 But no less than President Aquino assured the millions of furious OFWs that there will be safeguards in the BOC’s inspection of balikbayan boxes.

Aquino told reporters in Cebu yesterday that he had set a meeting with Lina and Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima about the matter.

While saying that this will be reviewed, the Chief Executive stood pat on the plan to open the packages, which is expected to come in by the thousands, especially since the Christmas season is drawing near.

He said such boxes are not exempt from examination, as these may yield drugs, ammunition, guns and the like.

He urged the public to support the BOC in its job but at the same time vowed that the government will make sure that the rights of OFWs will be protected.

Congressional probe

In response to the online petition to stop the BOC plan, Santiago, who has been on prolonged sick leave, filed Senate Resolution No. 1534. 

Sen. Grace Poe also filed a separate resolution urging the Senate to investigate the plan to inspect and further tax balikbayan boxes sent by OFWs.

“Balikbayan boxes are often channels of private and personal communication between migrant workers and their families in the Philippines. Is nothing sacred anymore for the Bureau of Customs?” Santiago said.

Poe said she wants to invite Lina to explain the BOC regulation, noting that this shows the agency’s dismal failure and ineptness to address smuggling.

Even the House of Representatives is set to conduct an inquiry into the controversial BOC policy.

The inquiry was prompted by a resolution filed by Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, who said it appeared that Lina wants to penalize OFWs and their families with this anti-poor directive.

He said that while the Aquino administration claims that OFWs are the country’s new heroes, they are being treated like smugglers. 

He said international carriers and business forwarders are not only exempt from value added tax and three percent carrier duties but also from stringent inspection measures “while OFWs’ padala will be heavily inspected and taxed just because they are not big business carriers or forwarders.”

More than willing

Lina, for his part, said he is willing to attend congressional hearings on BOC’s inspection of balikbayan boxes.

“I would be happy to go to Congress or Senate to clarify the issue,” Lina said, adding that they are only implementing the law.

He reiterated in a radio interview that they do not intend to make the life of OFWs miserable but instead, only want to make sure that balikbayan boxes are not being abused and used for smuggling purposes.

“To separate the legitimate OFWs from the smugglers, they should declare everything they are shipping to the Philippines in their Bill of Lading. They should also make a packing list so that the BOC would know what are the contents of the box,” Lina said.

He added that they would rely on the packing list prepared by the sender OFW.

“We would take your word for it because honesty is the best policy,” he said.

“If you could send the information early to the BOC, if you could send an electronic manifest, then maybe we would even pre-clear it because the documents have been examined,” he said. “But if the documents are incomplete or if BOC personnel found the cargo suspicious, then it would be examined.”– With Janvic Mateo, Delon Porcalla, Evelyn Macairan, Edith Regalado, Christina Mendez, Paolo Romero, Mayen Jaymalin, Eva Visperas, Edu Punay, Lalaine Jimenea

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