Invisible bond

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 27, 2015 - 10:00am

This is the culture that the Bureau of Customs is up against in cracking down on smuggling using balikbayan boxes:

In my first visit to the United States ages ago, I brought back a microwave oven. Its metal casing had a faux stained wood finish and it was simple to operate.

My aunt and uncle drove my mother and I to an outlet mall outside New York City where I got the oven for about $200.

My relatives were fascinated by my microwave obsession: did I plan to boil water or reheat food or pop corn a lot? But in those days microwave ovens were not yet being sold in the Philippines, and I was determined to have one in our kitchen.

In our last few days in the US, my mother and I were busy sorting out the stuff we had accumulated over two months and would bring home – mostly pasalubong or goods to give away to relatives and friends.

My mother has elevated packing to an art. Into the microwave oven went all the chocolate bars that the compartment could hold. The oven was encased in layers of sports socks and white men’s undershirts bought in bulk and therefore cheaper.

The microwave oven box was placed inside a bigger box, which was then stuffed with the rest of the pasalubong, including branded denim jeans, towels, bed linen, Ivory and Dove soap and of course cans of corned beef.

Apart from the box, my mother and I had suitcases filled to bursting with our clothing and other personal belongings plus similar items for pasalubong, some of which we intended to save for giving away as birthday and Christmas gifts.

And apart from the suitcases and the box, I hand-carried a tote bag packed with the maximum allowable carry-on weight of 30 pounds (nearly a third of my entire body weight at the time) of US-made chocolate.

Back in those days, there was still no standard balikbayan box. That big box where we placed the microwave oven was a precursor. But the sentiment that drove us to spend much of our two-month vacation in the US shopping for pasalubong while sightseeing is, I’m sure, similar to what drives overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to send balikbayan boxes regularly to the Philippines: we want to share our blessings with our loved ones and those who are not fortunate enough to be able to travel abroad.

All the pasalubong that we brought home were given away; not a single item was sold.

But I also know for a fact that unscrupulous people have taken advantage of this Pinoy trait and used the balikbayan box privilege for smuggling many items including pricey spare parts for luxury vehicles, guns and gun parts and even prohibited drugs.

This isn’t the first time that the government  is cracking down on the balikbayan shipments. In one of the crackdowns several years ago, many boxes were left unclaimed by smugglers in the Port of Manila. The Bureau of Customs eventually sold the boxes at auctions. I was told that many of the consignees managed to get their boxes of contraband anyway, with help from certain BOC insiders.

*   *   *

The BOC, unfortunately, has been saddled with a credibility problem for as long as I can remember. This has not changed under daang matuwid. The problem worsened with the resignation of John Sevilla as BOC commissioner over the looming appointment of an Iglesia ni Cristo-backed official as Customs police chief (the appointment pushed through), and Sevilla’s replacement with Alberto Lina, one of the major players in the logistics industry.

A better shipment scanning facility could have saved daang matuwid from OFW wrath. Without such facilities, the BOC decided to conduct random manual inspection of balikbayan boxes. Although the plan has been scuttled, there are fears that it may still be revived.

There are several factors fueling public wrath over this plan, apart from the indignation of honest, hard-working individuals being suspected of smuggling. One is the question of how genuinely “random” the inspections will be, and whether grease money will influence the randomness. Another is whether shipments using the services of Lina’s companies would be spared from the random checks. The third is whether the manual inspections would lead to damaged and pilfered balikbayan box contents. The boxes can contain personal items of an intimate nature and privacy issues have also been raised.

The biggest beef is that the BOC is zeroing in on the small boxes while waving away shipping containers of contraband, from tons of rice and onions to expensive guns and luxury vehicles that are consigned to well-connected individuals.

*   *   *

The furor should lead to a better system of screening shipments, if not upon arrival, then perhaps at points of origin, using a balikbayan box content certification system developed together with OFW groups and Philippine missions overseas. But this will have to be insulated from red tape and graft.

BOC personnel can also try to pursue violators of the limit of one balikbayan box per consignee every six months, although smugglers will surely be using numerous senders and consignees.

Authorities can also increase the $500 limit for the value of items per box to a more realistic level. My microwave oven cost $200 when the exchange rate was P14 to the greenback.

Today there’s a microwave oven for every budget right here in our country, as well as other household appliances and electronic devices to fit every income level.

Yet Pinoys continue to buy such items abroad to send back home. Due to local taxes, exchange rates and supply chains, the items may be cheaper in other countries. Or else Pinoys toiling overseas simply like to have their loved ones open a package from abroad with a smart phone or laptop or flat screen TV in it – even if the products are widely available here. 

The message is that even with the tyranny of distance, the recipients are on the sender’s mind. A stranger opening the balikbayan box disrupts this invisible bond.


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