The Bureau of Customs (BOC) order increasing duties for balikbayan boxes and subjecting them to physical inspection has sparked outrage among the Filipino migrant worker communities around the globe and their families back in the Philippines.
With an estimated 10 to 12 million Filipinos working or living abroad and over 6,000 individuals leaving the country every day, the balikbayan box issue was sure to strike a sore note among Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and their relatives in the Philippines.
The balikbayan box has become, writes sociologist Arnold Alamon, “private symbols of the hardships and sacrifices of dignified Filipinos.” The box has become a means for the Filipino domestic helpers, construction workers, nurses, and other Filipinos working the world over to express care for their loved ones back home.
The balikbayan box has come to represent the sacrifices made by migrant Filipinos, who face diminishing job opportunities, racial discrimination, and increasing anti-migrant laws, just so that they can give their families a taste of a better life.
The BOC initially justified the order as a way to beef up tax collection by letting those who send items back home pay the mandatory customs duties. The agency blamed a loss of P600 million annually from “non-declared goods” that are said to be smuggled in the country through balikbayan boxes.
But the depth of public anger had the agency later on change tack, saying there will be no tax increase and that the directive is simply part of measures for catching smugglers who allegedly use the packages to bring contraband into the country.
Not all are convinced, fearing that customs officials opening balikbayan boxes would only lead to more corruption opportunities in an agency that is perceived by the public as the country’s most corruptgovernment office. Newly-appointed Customs Chief Alberto Lina is also facing graft and plunder charges a little more than 2 months into his term.
As journalist Tonyo Cruz points out, “Customs is the same agency where a selective and corrupt application of the law allows smuggling syndicates to evade inspection and payment of customs duties and taxes. It is the same agency that allowed Canadian trash and fake rice into the country while stopping relief goods at ports and books at post offices.”
Many see the move as reflective of the Noynoy Aquino government’s insensitivity to the plight of OFWs even as the Philippine economy is kept afloat largely through the remittances of OFWs. “From 2002-2011, government lost P1.3 trillion due to large-scale smuggling, according to FPI, yet customs wants to focus on the balikbayan box,” said Bayan’s Renato Reyes.
An online petition against the Customs directive has reached over 87 thousand votes in less than a week. Migrant rights activists have led protests demanding that Customs take its hands off OFWs’ balikbayan boxes. They also launched a “Zero Remittance Day” on August 28. Progressive legislators have meanwhilefiled a resolution to investigate the BOC for the balikbayan box issue.
As public indignation reaches boiling point, President Aquino who earlier urged the public to simply let the Customs do its job has called for a stop of the random inspection. This as an initial victory. But the fight for migrant workers’ rights continues.