Customs' Pandora's box (Philippine Star)

VANCOUVER Like most overseas Filipino workers around the world, our countrymen all over Canada are up in arms on the news reaching them here. Official statements coming from government functionaries like newly appointed Bureau of Customs commissioner Alberto Lina touched raw nerves of OFWs.

This was after Lina announced renewed campaign of Customs to stamp outillegal activities of smugglers and specifically applying stricter rules in processing the “balikbayan” boxes.Lina alleged that the duty- and tax-free shipments often contain items valued above the $500 limit. From Customs’ standpoint, balikbayan boxes could be veritable source of uncollected taxes.

More often than not, Lina complained that OFWs exceed the maximum of one consignment per sender per month, and that some items in balikbayan boxes are for commercial use.

To a certain degree, this may hold some truth. But certainly, the general statement of Lina does not apply to a majority of OFWs, mostly our migrant workers who bring in balikbayan boxes when they return to the Philippines for vacation or at the end of their contracts.

Invoking the rampant smuggling problem in all ports of entry, the Customs chief’s announcement on the mandatory inspection of all balikbayan boxes instead opened the proverbial Pandora’s box for the graft-ridden agency.

To every OFW, the balikbayan box is a symbol of their hard work and difficult life abroad, away from their respective families back home. Migrant workers groups even call the balikbayan box as a “sacred” object for OFWs to exaggerate their stand on the issue on social media.

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Thus, it is not surprising why the usually fractious organizations and groups of OFWs abroad suddenly united in attacking President Benigno “Noy” Aquino III for something that his underling did. Even if he is outgoing President, P-Noy to his credit recently reiterated his 2010 presidential campaign promise he won’t impose any new taxes.

So where does the Lina’s balikbayan box campaign come into the picture? Faced with billions of pesos of revenue collection shortfall, the Customs chief is apparently scraping bottom to meet his target this year. Unfortunately for him, he inherited this cumulative revenue shortfall from his immediate predecessor who recently gave up his post for reasons other than failure to meet collection targets.

President Aquino appointed Lina lastApril 23following the controversial resignation of erstwhile Customs chief John P. Sevilla, originally one of the trusted deputies of Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima. As Finance undersecretary, Sevilla was seconded last year to the Bureau of Customs, one of the department’s attached agencies. Sevillavehemently denied reported turf feud with his Customs deputies and politics as reasons for his resignation.

Barely one year into office, Sevilla’s tenure at the Bureau came to an abrupt end amid rumors of in-fighting among his deputies over smuggling and other illicit activities. Allegedly committed in connivance with insiders at the bureau, nothing came out of supposed internal investigations. Of course, if there will be such findings of hanky-panky at Customs, it would be a bad publicity for P-Noy’s “matuwid na daan” campaign motto.

P-Noy getting severe backlash from large communities of OFWs at this stage of his administration would certainly affect anyone who would vow to continue his government’s program. Being the “anointed” presidential candidate, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Mar Roxas II must speak out on this policy issue.

The OFW communities abroad could not be ignored with the “absentee” voting system in place in our electoral system. There are quite a number of candidates in the May 2016 who have associated themselves as advocates for the protection of welfare and rights of OFWs. And these advocates for OFWs include Vice President Jejomar Binay who once served as P-Noy’s presidential adviser on OFWs.

This is not the way tohonor our modern day heroes who have been the backbone of the Philippine economy all this time with their foreign exchange remittances.So it would not be surprising if many of these lawmakers who are up for election in May 2016 are now taking up the cudgels for OFWs, our so-called “modern day heroes.”

Here in Canada, the politicians are also on campaign mode as elections for a new Parliament are seton October 19.Canada is a parliamentary democracy, meaning that the political party (or coalition of parties) with the most representation in Parliament gets to pick the country’s leader, rather than that being directly decided by voters. But Canadians vote directly for their mayors and other local officials.

This was why many Filipinos, including my relatives who have migrated here, still prefer the Philippine election system of direct voting of our officials from the president down to local government officials. It is through elections we can hold these officials accountable for all government policies that impact their lives wherever they may be.

Just recently, an opinion survey done by the Makati Business Club supposedly showed the Customs Bureau as the third worst-performing agency from July 2014 to July 2015.

In her official statement, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago cited a 2013 survey by the Social Weather Station (SWS) which found the Customs Bureau as one of the most corrupt and worst-performing government agencies. According to opinion polls, the agency got the worst rating (-63 or “very bad”) in the 2013 SWS Survey of Enterprises on Corruption.

Although on medical leave,Santiago filed last Monday a resolution urging the Senate to investigate the Bureau of Customs plan “to intrusively inspect and further tax balikbayan boxes” sent by OFWs. This, despite the announcement made by Purisima that P-Noy has ordered Customs to stop their announced mandatory examination of all balikbayan boxes but continue with the present random inspection of suspicious ones.

So after earlier issuing statement asking our OFWs to just allow Customs to do its job, P-Noy did an about-face and made amends to his avowed “bosses.”Santiago though is insisting that the Senate look into why this graft-ridden agency is going after the wrong targets to make up for their revenue collection shortfalls.

Unlike the balikbayan boxes which Customs inspectors can reseal once untaped, Lina has opened the lid of Customs’ own Pandora’s box that he can no longer close.