Immigration spokesperson Dana Sandoval, who refused to disclose the identity of the immigration officials, said all the terminal heads and heads of the travel control and enforcement unit of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) were relieved “due to command responsibility.”
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5 NAIA immigration execs sacked over ‘pastillas’
Robertzon Ramirez (The Philippine Star) - February 19, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Five officials of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) were relieved from their posts on Monday shortly after it called an investigation on the so-called “pastillas scheme,” where immigration officers are allegedly accepting bribes from Chinese nationals.

Immigration spokesperson Dana Sandoval, who refused to disclose the identity of the immigration officials, said all the terminal heads and heads of the travel control and enforcement unit of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) were relieved “due to command responsibility.”

Sandoval, however, emphasized that the five officials are “not necessarily the center of the investigation” as they are looking into the “bigger picture” to determine how the scheme works.

“They are not necessarily the center of the investigation. The management is looking at the bigger picture, all that might be connected to this alleged scheme, whether internal or external,” she told reporters.

Sandoval added that the five officials were given different assignments pending investigation of the so-called pastillas scheme, which was exposed during the Senate investigation into the crimes committed by Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs) on Monday.

While she admitted that the relief of the five officials will surely affect their operations at the NAIA due to lack of manpower, Sandoval said it is “a sacrifice” that they could do to ensure a smooth investigation.

BI Commissioner Jaime Morente immediately called for an investigation to determine whether the alleged scheme still exists, to identify the persons involved in the scheme and file charges against them.

“We are not taking this lightly,” Morente said.

He added that he has already requested the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to look into the alleged malpractice of immigration officers at the airports.

Palace: Complaints should be filed

Malacañang said complaints should be filed against immigration personnel involved in the pastillas scheme.

“Any violation, any transgression, any anomaly, the Palace frowns on it and will act on it if there are complaints formally filed before its office,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said at a press briefing yesterday.

“We’ve been saying that complaints should be filed. Because unless you file a formal complaint, we will never know if there is any anomaly; and even if these are being subject of talks in media, in columns, unless there is a complaint filed, we will never know. You have to submit proof so that we can do something,” Panelo added.

He said allegations against immigration personnel who allegedly received bribes to facilitate the entry of POGO workers must be proven.

The Palace, according to Panelo, supports the Senate probe on the pastillas scheme because it is interested to know more about the issue.

“You know, when the President says it’s just a rumor, he validates that. He doesn’t act recklessly on any rumor,” the Palace spokesman said. “If there is a Senate investigation, the President’s position is: let it be heard.”

Asked whether Duterte is still confident with the leadership of Morente, Panelo replied: “Until (Duterte) says otherwise, the assumption is he has confidence in him.”

“I do not know if he has spoken with (Justice) Secretary (Menardo) Guevarra. I’m sure there will be talks between him and Sec. Guevarra and then, Sec. Guevarra with the President relative to that subject matter,” he added.

‘Happy days for corrupt are back’

The allegations of a new racket involving payouts to immigration officers at the NAIA by syndicates to facilitate the entry of foreigners to work in POGOs only showed that “happy days are back for the corrupt,” Sen. Joel Villanueva said yesterday.

Villanueva, chairman of the committee on labor and employment, renewed his call to suspend POGOs given the latest incident involving BI personnel facilitating the entry of Chinese nationals, most of whom are believed to have been recruited to work in online gambling firms.

“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. We call on the government to suspend POGO firms until it is able to rein in wayward companies who skirt around our laws,” he said.

The senator added that the problems, including the surge in criminality, linked to the proliferation of POGOs was due to the ineptness at the BI, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), and the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor).

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 Villanueva, who started the legislative inquiry into the influx of illegal foreign workers.

During the course of the committee’s inquiry, Villanueva also uncovered a racket in the BI’s satellite office in Taguig City, where immigration staff allegedly ask for P5,000 to speed up the processing of special working permits (SWP).

He also questioned the BI’s authority to issue SWPs.

The senator cited a report last year where a number of immigration agents were accused of running an “escort service” for illegal foreign workers. 

Agents reportedly fetched foreigners who plan to stay in the country to work in POGO companies and whisked them through different queues right after disembarking the plane.

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

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

Continuous inspection

In a related development, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) continues to inspect all POGO firms to ensure that workers have the necessary permits.

“Our inspection is ongoing,” Labor Undersecretary Ana Dione said, stressing that all foreign nationals employed in POGOs must have the necessary alien employment permit (AEP).

Dione, however, explained that closing down POGO firms is beyond the authority of the DOLE.

“If we find labor violations, the DOLE will require POGO firms to comply within a certain period. Noncompliance will be reported to Pagcor, which shall take the appropriate action,” she said.

The lack of working permits among foreign nationals is the most common violation of POGO firms, which was found during labor inspections, according to Dione.

She said Pagcor can cancel the license or fine the POGO firm, depending on the violation.

The BI, on the other hand, can deport foreign nationals for working in POGOs without the necessary working permits.

Acting Assistant Labor Secretary Dominique Tutay said the DOLE issued 143,056 AEPs to POGO-related workers last year.

Tutay added that the figure is almost triple the number of the more than 50,000 AEPs issued by DOLE in 2018.

Of the total POGO workers with AEPs, she said almost 80 percent are Chinese nationals.

“They are now complying and securing the necessary working permits,” Tutay said.

Meanwhile, militant labor group Partido ng Manggagawa (PM) yesterday joined the growing call for the shutdown of POGOs in the country.

PM secretary-general Judy Ann Miranda said the government is duty-bound to close down both legal and illegal POGO firms for the protection of both local and foreign workers.

Miranda added that the government should protect the lives of all workers from trafficking and other crimes committed by POGO operators and recruiters.

“History would tell us that high-end gambling operations, legal or not, are always accompanied by crimes, especially against women, as most of the victims of human trafficking, prostitution and sexual abuse are women. Whoever is allowing these things to happen should be guilty of the same crime, hence, must be prosecuted,” she said in a statement.

Miranda added that closer ties with China should not make the country more tolerant of these kinds of crimes, including violations of labor rights.

No-show

The investigation of the House committee on games and amusements on the reported P50-billion tax delinquency of POGOs was stalled yesterday after Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) officials failed to appear before the panel’s hearing.

Panel chair and ACT-CIS Rep. Eric Go Yap slammed the BIR for not sending a representative to the hearing despite invitation after learning that officials of the agency attended a seminar on the same day.

“The BIR is very crucial in this hearing because they are the source of the information (on tax delinquency of POGOs). We’re talking about P50 billion in lost revenue here, so how can they not prioritize our hearing?” Yap said.

The lawmaker added that the BIR officials would be summoned again to their hearing next month and warned that failure to attend would prompt the panel to issue contempt order against them.

Only officials of Pagcor, BI and the Philippine National Police attended the hearing.

It was found that the inter-agency task force on POGOs did not have a coordination system when it comes to dealing with delinquent POGOs and workers involved in criminal activities, like kidnapping and prostitution. – With Alexis Romero, Paolo Romero, Mayen Jaymalin, Edu Punay

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