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Monday, March 4, 2024

Banning POGOs is not only histrionic, it is also arbitrary

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Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators, or POGOs, are hard put these days to win the publicity war against them because of the so-called moral crusaders who see nothing good in the industry. But a hard-nosed rationalization of the sector and swift response from authorities will easily allay the fears of its many detractors.

A few POGOs were linked to illegal activities like prostitution, illegal recruitment and employment of minors in the past, while some unscrupulous players were taking advantage of the lax enforcement of the law. A strict implementation of the law, however, has neutralized the notoriety of the few.

Recent actions of the Philippine National Police (PNP) have put a stop to crimes supposedly involving POGO employees. The social costs of POGOs, as their critics claim, can be contained with political will, effective enforcement and proper regulation.

The PNP simply improved police visibility and were more vigilant in guarding against POGO-related crimes. The moves instantly produced the desired results. By the Senate’s second hearing, the PNP reported that there were zero crimes involving POGOs.

Like any industry, POGOs will have their bad eggs, as Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian pointed out in the Senate’s POGO inquiries. There will be POGOs who do not fully comply with government requirements and there will be those that do not remit the proper revenues.

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But just because 10 percent or less of the industry are non-compliant doesn’t mean we should shut down the over 90 percent legitimate POGOs, who employ thousands of Filipinos and pump billions of pesos into the economy.

There are Filipino businesses that do not remit the proper taxes and take steps to avoid paying the Bureau of Internal Revenue. What the government does in these cases is go after the erring parties. That is what’s needed with regard to POGOs―go after the guilty (assuming there are ones) and leave the innocent, law-abiding POGOs alone. Why condemn the majority for the sins of a very small minority? One bad apple does not necessarily spoil the rest of the bunch.

Blaming the entire industry would be an overreaction on the part of government. It is overacting, or OA in the Filipino vernacular. Banning them would be an extreme measure. The Senate’s POGO hearings, in fact, reveal they are job-generating enterprises that compensate their workers over and beyond what other industries are capable of paying.

POGO critics have simply gone overboard in attacking the industry. One of their exaggerated claims is that allowing POGOs in the country will hurt the country’s attempts to lure Chinese tourists to the Philippines. They contend the Chinese government will “blacklist” the country and discourage their citizens from visiting our shores if we allow POGOs to operate, an assertion made by our very own Senate President––but debunked by the Chinese Embassy itself.

Recent developments have shown that the Chinese government on the contrary are encouraging their citizens to visit the Philippines. When President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. visited Beijing last month, he returned from his State Visit with 14 bilateral agreements, one of which is the implementation of the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) on tourism between the Philippines’ Department of Tourism (DOT) and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of China.

The agreements immediately bore fruits. Chinese Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian and Tourism Secretary Christina Garcia Frasco in the last week of January welcomed over 200 travelers from China at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Huang says the Philippines is one of the first 20 countries that the Chinese government included in a pilot program to resume outbound group travel for Chinese citizens––one of the “deliverables” of President Marcos’ visit to China.

Adds Huang: “We hope and believe that the Philippine government will continue to provide convenience and facilitation to Chinese tourists and ensure a pleasant, convenient and safe journey.” That does not sound like a foreign government that plans to blacklist the Philippines.

POGO employees are fortunate that Mr. Marcos has shown more empathy than those in the Senate or in his Finance team who want POGOs out. He knows jobs are at stake, and the Chief Executive has approached the issue with an open and mind, one that recognizes that the benefits of POGOs cannot be denied.

The President acknowledges that banning them comes with costs––thousands of unemployed Filipinos, billions in foregone revenues––that will outweigh whatever purported problems the prohibition of POGOs seek to cure.

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