‘Moral options’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

For someone who frowns upon gambling, Albay Rep. Joey Sarte-Salceda could not help but speak up against calls made by fellow lawmakers for the government to ban and abolish all together the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs). Regarded as the resident economist in Congress, Salceda strongly cautioned those pushing to ban POGOs on the immediate socio-economic consequences of any drastic measures based on wrong information.

In particular, Salceda found to his dismay “the crux of the matter” on the reported “kidnapping” case of 200 Chinese nationals who were supposedly rescued as illegal POGO workers in Angeles City, Pampanga. From police investigations, Salceda found that it was more of a case of poaching and on-going piracy war to get Mandarin-speaking Chinese nationals. According to police investigators, un-named “headhunter” or recruiter enticed the 200 Chinese nationals receiving much lower pay to leave their present employer in Angeles City and transfer instead to a rival POGO in Pasig City.

“So what criminality are they (authorities) talking about? A headhunter recruited (the workers), so the other operator complained,” Salceda riled. He expressed such exasperations on the calls to ban POGOs in our country during our face-to-face Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast news forum today at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle in Malate. Understandably, Salceda noted, the POGO operators here in our country have difficulties in recruiting Mandarin-speaking workers from China, especially after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of this, he cited, Beijing has very strict laws against any form of gambling activities of their nationals whether in China or if caught abroad for gambling.

While these national debates are raging, many POGO operators have move out of the Philippines and several of them went to Cambodia and Dubai.

Reacting to reported latest wave of kidnapping of Chinese POGO workers, Salceda warned against knee-jerk reactions amid some of the trumped-up cases of reported POGO-related crimes. Salceda reminded especially members of the 19th Congress that there is an existing POGO Law that govern these State-sanctioned online gambling registered with the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCor). Specifically, this is Republic Act (RA) 11590, or An Act Taxing Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators.

“It is only the Philippines that has a POGO Law. It is the most restrictive and most brutal law on POGO operations,” Salceda pointed out.

Approved into law by the 18th Congress, RA 11590 was signed by former president Rodrigo Duterte on Sept. 22, 2021. Further, Salceda recalled, our Supreme Court (SC) no less upheld the legality and constitutionality of RA 11590. If banned eventually due to this wrong information, the House chairman on ways and means committee estimated the Philippines stands to lose some P128 billion in “aggregate economic demand” out of legitimate POGOs currently registered with PAGCor.

According to him, RA 11590 mandated a 25 percent “presumptive tax” from POGO workers regardless of nationality. Under this law, it slaps POGO employees with a minimum withholding tax due of P12,500 for any taxable month. During the pandemic, POGOs brought in P32 billion in tax revenues to the Philippines last year, he noted.

As far as he sees it, Salceda explained, the unsavory reputation of POGOs were apparently due to the three interlocking problems of illegal POGOs that are not sanctioned by the PAGCor, the illegal working aliens, and unscrupulous recruiters. Therefore, the solution is to tighten the enforcement of rules involving POGOs by keeping them in specific areas so that any online gambling activities outside these POGO-specific areas are automatically considered illegal. “Ring-fence them and enforce the law. Keep them where they should be. If you’re outside POGO, you’re in flagrante delicto,” Salceda pointed out.

In a press statement issued yesterday, PAGCor chairman and chief executive officer Alejandro Tengco disclosed they have 34 approved POGO operators, 127 accredited service providers, and five special class of business process outsourcing as of current count. All of which, Tengco affirmed, have underwent “probity check,” presumably done by the state-run gaming firm with local and foreign law enforcement agencies.

Furthermore, according to Tengco, the personnel of customer relations service providers, gaming software platform providers, and live studio and streaming providers were also required to secure offshore gaming employment licenses and are now ordered to obtain police clearances.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) reported yesterday that 1,495 employees from various POGO companies have secured national police clearances from them.

From earlier “estimates” of PNP Director General Rodolfo Azurin Jr., there were about 800,000 Chinese nationals employed in various POGOs all around the Philippines. However, the PNP does not know if those 800,000 are still documented. “We suggested on undocumented cases, we wanted PAGCor to furnish us with the approved POGO operators so that we can easily crackdown and look for these Chinese nationals on TNT (tago ng tago) here in our country,” Azurin told police reporters in a press briefing last Sept. 19.?

On Sept.21, a Baptist pastor-turned politician Manila Rep. Benny Abante filed a proposed legislation under House Bill 5082: “Banning and Declaring Illegal POGOs and Operators.” One of the ways to do this is really to repeal the POGO Law, Salceda agreed. But also through the discretion of the Chief Executive to rescind existing POGO franchise contracts with PAGCor, he added.

Turning to his Jesuit education, Salceda philosophized: “It (POGO) is not a state-sponsored activity. It is an activity that is enabled and empowered because of changes in technology because of the intrinsic ambivalence of human character. Our capacity for good and the propensity for evil, which is gambling.”

In his own question-and-answer, Salceda concluded: “Therefore, what are our moral options? The moral option is to regulate and tax.”


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