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POGOs to resume ops post-lockdown amid task force meetings delay
Chinese workers take a break from a POGO facility in Las Piñas City in this file photo dated August 16, 2019.
The STAR/Edd Gumban

POGOs to resume ops post-lockdown amid task force meetings delay

(Philstar.com) - April 15, 2020 - 4:04pm

MANILA, Philippines — Despite figuring in a myriad of controversies preceding the lockdown of mainland Luzon, Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs) are slated to resume their operations by the time the lockdown-esque quarantine is lifted, the Labor Department said. 

In the months leading up to the initial quarantine, POGOs were implicated in a string of Senate probes, which looked into incidents ranging from links to sex trafficking, immigration bribery, identity theft, money laundering, kidnapping and prostitution. 

Even after the first quarantine's declaration, the online casinos mostly manned by Chinese nationals, still continued to run on skeletal workforces, even pledging P150 million to aid the government's response to the worsening outbreak. 

READ: Saying POGOs have become 'beyond regulation,' Drilon wants licenses revoked'Women for order': Hontiveros slams Chinese prostitution dens in POGO industry

In an interview with One News, Labor Undersecretary Dominique Tutay said these were expected to resume their regular operations by the end of April, when the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon is slated to be lifted. 

“POGOs will continue as long they are allowed by law. We will just continue our initiative to regulate and ensure that these firms are compliant with labor and immigration laws as well as payment of taxes,” Tutay said.

'Allowed by law'

Tutay said that the department was in the process of validating data that showed around 2,000 foreign nationals were working in POGOs without the required alien employment permits (AEP), which she said was the most common violation committed by POGOs.

In March, the Labor Department also found that 4,000 foreign nationals in POGO firms were working under identical government-issued Tax Identification Numbers (TINs), which are a pre-requisite before applying for an AEP. The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), which issues these TINs, tagged this as an internal glitch in its systems. 

The BIR has the power to shut down POGOs for not paying taxes.

Meetings on resolving the concerns and irregularities surrounding POGOs were supposed to be held in March, but these were cut short by the ECQ. 

As it stands, the Department of Labor and Employment does not have the authority to close down POGOs violating labor regulations, particularly those illegally employing foreign nationals or working without the necessary documentation as the deportation of foreign workers falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Immigration (BI).

According to Tutay, the task force investigating the POGOs' lapses would not look into crafting new policies and would instead look to implement existing ones, particularly those concerned with the tightening of border control on the part of the BI. 

“We have not thought of a policy review as we are focused on addressing workers affected by the COVID pandemic and also on the planning on the recovery phase," she said. 

China benefiting from POGOs

Despite Beijing's supposed crackdown on cybercrime including illegal online gambling, a study published in December 2019 by think tank Ibon Foundation said, "China still benefits from POGO operations due to employment opportunities for its thousands of citizens who have low educational attainment and cannot find work."

"Chinese citizens finding employment in the Philippines is better for the Xi Jin Ping government since people’s dissatisfaction could destabilize its rule," it added.

READ: 'Beijing requires Chinese citizens overseas to abide by local laws' — Chinese Embassy

According to Ibon, of the 87,054 POGO employees reported by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation, 71.5% are Chinese while a measly 16.6% are Filipinos.

“Hopefully, Pagcor will be able to explain why these POGO firms are not employing local workers,” she said, pointing out that shutting down POGOs could displace some 20,000 Filipino workers in the industry.

Even President Duterte has expressed ambivalence towards the idea of banning the gaming operators altogether, pointing out the supposed benefits they brought to the country. "We need the money," the Palace said in a statement. 

As Beijing continues to hand the Duterte administration assistance in its fight against COVID-19, state-run Xinhua news agency in China recently reported the launch of two research stations on Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) and Subi Reefs in Spratly Islands, both of which are Philippine-claimed territories in the West Philippine Sea.

During Duterte's 2016 presidential campaign, he promised to take a jet ski all the way to Scarborough Shoal to plant the Philippine flag and assert the country’s ownership over the disputed seas.

RELATED: Duterte ready to 'ignore' arbitral ruling for joint exploration with China

He later expressed surprise that people took that claim seriously, refusing to assert the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling that falls in favor of the Philippines, affirming its rights throughout the disputed territory. — Franco Luna with reports from Patricia Lourdes Viray and One News

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