02:52 AM November 1st, 2015
IN AUGUST this year, Bureau of Customs (BOC) Commissioner Alberto Lina announced that the BOC would be randomly opening “balikbayan” boxes on suspicion that these were being used to smuggle drugs, arms and highly dutiable goods.
The BOC estimated that some 1,000 to 1,500 containers of balikbayan boxes (at 400 boxes per container) arrived each month in Philippine ports, and that the government was losing P50 million a month or P600 million a year to smuggling through this channel.
Lina later amended the figures during a TV interview and placed government loss at P3 billion to P6 billion.
Lawmakers questioned such scheme, saying the BOC should first ensure that its employees and officials were honest and not prone to corruption before being allowed to go through the balikbayan boxes.
Families of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) meanwhile expressed fears that the manual inspection of balikbayan boxes could lead to tampering and pilferage, a common enough experience among many of them.
Defending its plan on the random and physical inspection of the boxes, the BOC said it was not after OFWs or their hard-earned “pasalubong” (homecoming gifts) for loved ones, but smugglers or “riders” who sneak in contraband through fake consignees of the boxes.
On Aug. 24, President Aquino ordered the BOC to refrain from opening balikbayan boxes, except when the boxes pose a threat to public safety.
Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima said Mr. Aquino specifically instructed the BOC to stop the random or arbitrary physical inspection of balikbayan boxes; instead, the boxes should undergo mandatory X-ray and K-9 examination—at no cost to the sender.
The President also ordered that in the event of a physical inspection, the BOC should request that an Overseas Workers Welfare Administration representative or a designated officer of an OFW association be present, with provisions for CCTV (closed-circuit television) monitoring of the inspection areas.
Amid the controversy, some lawmakers called for the amendment of the 37-year-old Tariff and Customs Code of 1978.
Under the Customs Code, or Presidential Decree No. 1464, the taxable threshold for parcels shipped to the country is P10,000, meaning only items worth that much or below it, are exempt from tax.
Then Western Samar Rep. and now Interior Secretary Mel Senen Sarmiento called on Congress to pass a joint resolution raising the threshold to P50,000 to “avoid a long-drawn legislative process.”
Sen. Ralph Recto also filed a bill that would increase the tax-exempt value of the contents of balikbayan boxes from $500 to $2,000 (about P93,200), almost double the amount proposed by Sarmiento.
Increasing the tax-exempt ceiling for the OFWs’ packages would reduce the motive and temptation to open the boxes, Recto said. Inquirer Research