Why reopen Pogos?
Provoked by reports and their own observations that neighbors were “blessed” by social amelioration funds while they were left to fend for themselves, urban poor residents have been protesting to air their anger and resentment about the alleged “injustice.”
Observers and students of social dynamics recognize this as a basic factor in the creation of social cohesion (or lack of it). Poor people are willing to endure any hardship or deprivation as long as the misery is distributed evenly and fairly. But if they see or even just suspect that some are “luckier” than others, then their resentment is sure to erupt into more than just words or dirty looks.
We are today in the midst of an economic and social crisis like no other. Millions of Filipinos are chafing under the hard regime of lockdowns and closures brought on by efforts to control, or even just slow down, the spread of COVID-19. In the process, large firms and small businesses have closed their doors, some perhaps never to reopen. Worst hit are those in the informal economy, who rely on daily wages or earnings that have disappeared, bringing on the likelihood of starvation.
Imagine, then, the feelings likely to be stirred by news that even as Filipinos are being asked to sacrifice and endure temporary hardship in the name of a national health emergency, foreigners — specifically Chinese workers — may soon be welcomed back to our territory so they can resume their employment in Philippine offshore gaming operators or Pogos.
Note that even before the country closed its boundaries to all nonresident foreigners—later than was necessary, it turns out — popular sentiment had been turning against the offshore gaming concerns. This stemmed from reports that the industry had brought over or spawned practices that were not only annoying but even dangerous. According to law enforcement authorities, Pogos have been linked to a variety of criminal activities, including kidnapping for ransom, prostitution, human trafficking, and money laundering.
Also worth noting, as revealed in a series of legislative investigations, is that Pogos are not even worth it. Of the P54 billion generated by offshore gambling, the Anti-Money Laundering Council found that only P7 billion can be counted as net inflow. AMLC chief Mel Georgie Racela went so far as to observe that the figures “indicated leakages through fraudulent means.” The Bureau of Internal Revenue also said that the industry owes the government P50 billion in the form of franchise, corporate, and other taxes.
But even more concerning in light of today’s health scare is the possibility that another mass influx of Chinese workers, even as China itself is just recovering from its COVID-19 nightmare, could trigger a renewed wave of infections here, just as the Philippines’ curve of infections is showing tentative signs of a “plateauing.”
Note that Singapore, just recently considered a “success story” in dealing with COVID-19, is racking up new numbers of infections traced to mostly migrant workers who are clustered in their own dormitories and buildings — much like the crowded quarters and daily transport provided Pogo workers here. The police and military have their hands full enforcing the quarantine in many parts of the country; must they now add to their job policing Chinese workers on social distancing and other public health rules?
The proposal to reopen Pogos has expectedly drawn loud protests, including from a surprising bipartisan and bicameral cast of lawmakers who were in the midst of hearings on the ills of the Pogo industry before the COVID-19 crisis.
Their reactions are borne out of incredulity at the cluelessness of executive officials and legislators calling for the resumption of Pogo activities. Claiming that Pogos could provide income for the government that needs to raise money to address the COVID-19 emergency, these officials seem to forget that the industry has not exactly been compliant in meeting the most basic obligations of foreign investors, and in fact still owes the government billions in tax arrears. That money could go a long way in augmenting state funds for the COVID-19 response. Before talk of their reopening should be considered, are there even efforts to collect from delinquent Pogos first, and fine them for the shortfall?
And what of the social ferment these returning workers and their favored industry would create in a society already in ferment? As Sen. Francis Pangilinan asked: “Uunahin pa ang negosyo at trabaho ng mga Tsino sa Pogo habang walang makain at walang hanapbuhay ang mga Pilipino dahil sa lockdown (Why prioritize the business and employment of Chinese in Pogos while Filipinos have nothing to eat and no livelihood because of the lockdown)?”
Yes, why indeed?
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