Rising tide vs POGOs
The clamor to ban all Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos) is getting louder. Many lawmakers and civic groups, citing the huge social costs of hosting tens of thousands of mostly Chinese nationals working in Pogos, are pushing the Marcos administration to finally put a stop to this controversial sector. The heightening opposition against Pogos followed the recent wave of kidnapping involving mainly Chinese individuals who are somehow linked to the industry. Last Sept. 17, authorities rescued 133 workers of different nationalities following a call for assistance from the Chinese embassy. The National Bureau of Investigation freed 70 Chinese nationals, 44 Filipinos, 16 Vietnamese, two Taiwanese, and a Malaysian allegedly forced to work in a fraudulent Pogo. The week before, the police antikidnapping group rescued 43 Chinese nationals “who were similarly enslaved under human trafficking conditions” in another Pogo company in Angeles City, Pampanga.
The opposition to Pogos is most forceful in Congress. Saying the Philippines “has been turned into a playground by foreigners who are undesirable visitors,” Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III has urged Malacañang to heed calls for a total ban. “The continued operation of Pogos in the country is dangerous. It is akin to harboring would-be criminals and gangsters that can eventually cause massive disruption of peace and order in the country,” the senator pointed out. Sen. Cynthia Villar also backed the scrapping of Pogos, recalling that Chinese President Xi Jinping had earlier warned the government against hosting such entities. Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Senate committee on public services, noted that the social costs of this online gambling business catering to gamblers in mainland China outweigh the economic gains. In Congress, Manila Rep. Benny Abante Jr. agrees that Pogos should be “given the boot” since the social costs of Pogos “far outweigh their benefits.” A broad-ranging proposal was even suggested by Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva, who pressed for the immediate passage of the bill seeking to prohibit all online gambling and the placing of bets through the internet and repealing laws that regulate and allow such activities. This was what former president Rodrigo Duterte did to “e-sabong,” after online cockfighting lured ordinary Filipinos into gambling away their money and some 34 aficionados were abducted and have not been found to this day.
Within the administration, Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno has openly supported ending Pogos also because of the social costs associated with the industry. “If you ask my personal opinion on this, let’s discontinue the Pogo because of the social cost [and] reputational risk [to the country],” Diokno said during a Senate briefing on the proposed 2023 budget. President Marcos Jr.’s chief economic official noted that the total government revenues earned from the industry had fallen to P3.9 billion in 2021 from the previous year’s P7.2 billion. Last week, Pagcor likewise hinted at the grim fate awaiting the Pogo industry. “If these kidnapping incidents and other illegal activities persist, it is clear that not only will we cancel the licenses of Pogo operators, but the entire industry may be affected by whatever decision will emanate from the national government,” said Pagcor chair and CEO Alejandro Tengco.
The fate of the Pogo industry is now up to Mr. Marcos. The chief executive’s sister, Sen. Imee Marcos, said in a radio interview that she had told the President that since authorities could not regulate Pogos, it might be better to shut them down. She added that her brother is thinking of outlawing Pogos following the string of crimes and corruption linked to their operations, but noted that the President has not made up his mind about the proposed ban.
If in the small likelihood that the government still decides to keep Pogos despite the mounting calls to let them go, it is best advised to heed the suggestion of Albay Rep. Joey Salceda. The economist-turned-lawmaker took the contrarian view favoring Pogos, saying it would be in the best interest of a government in need of money to keep Pogo operations. However, these should be “within Pogo-specific zones that are ring-fenced from the rest of the country.” That has not prevented the irregularities and criminality associated with the illegal Chinese workers. Stricter immigration protocols to ensure only legitimate Chinese workers will be given entry, and would not be allowed to go outside of the Pogo complex and mingle with the rest of society, would be the better solution.
But either way, what is important now is for the President to decide immediately on the fate of Pogos. Holding a decision until after Congress has finished its investigations purportedly to assess the social costs of allowing the industry to continue may be too late. Mr. Marcos cannot wait any day longer as the Pogo-related kidnappings are starting to adversely impact tourism, a sector with one of the strongest potentials to generate much-needed revenues for his cash-strapped administration.
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