Malacañang said the government will run after illegal recruiters of workers for Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations or POGOs.
“Anything illegal, we will run after them,” Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters in a chance interview Friday.
Panelo said this a day after the Chinese embassy urged the Duterte government to penalize gambling entities, including POGO operators, which illegally recruit Chinese citizens.
“It can be illegal if they do not observe the protocols imposed by the government,” Panelo said.
This came after the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. proposed to contain POGOs in communities or “hubs” to reduce interaction with Filipinos due to the Chinese workers’ supposed unruly behavior.
“When PAGCOR refers to these hubs as ‘self-contained communities,’ it does not imply any restriction on the personal rights or liberties of the [Chinese] workers.
They are free to go wherever they may want to, do whatever they may want to, within the limits of the law,” the state gaming firm said Friday in a statement.
The Chinese embassy earlier claimed that Chinese workers were subjected to “extortion, physical abuse, and torture as well as other ill-treatment” and their passports were taken away by some employers.
Meanwhile, Surigao Rep. Robert Ace Barbers is seeking safeguards to prevent POGOs from being used by criminal syndicates, including drug traffickers, as well as terrorists as money laundering vehicles.
Barbers, chairman of the House Committee on Dangerous Drugs, seek the enactment of laws to institute such safeguards.
The hubs, Pagcor said, are intended to host the operations of the offshore gaming industry firms for the agency to improve its monitoring and regulatory capabilities.
The proponents of these hubs are required to develop within the property, office and residential spaces, food establishments, grocery or convenience stores, wellness, and recreational facilities, service shops “and all others which may be needed by the workers hosted thereat,” Pagcor said.
“They are also required to provide free office spaces to government agencies exercising regulatory or oversight functions over the industry,” its statement added.
With POGO workers hosted in specific sites, PAGCOR “and other relevant government agencies can readily address all their concerns and protect them from harassment and harm.”
Barbers, however, said while the government, particularly the Bureau of Internal Revenue and Pagcor, see only the economic benefits of e-gaming, “it apparently appears blind on the possibility that it may be used by drug syndicates and other crime groups to launder their money.”
In another development, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Friday he will check on the possible security threats from the planned development of three islands that would host POGOs and could be used as footholds for Chinese activities.
One of the islands, Fuga, is in the Babuyan archipelago, “a very strategic crossing for our ships,” Lorenzana said.
Chiquita and Grande, the two other islands, are at the mouth of Subic Bay where “we are going to park a lot of our capital assets later on,” Lorenzana said. The area is also home to a freeport zone and a former US Navy base. Maricel V. Cruz
Lorenzana told ANC: “We don’t want anybody monitoring us, that we’re not sure if they’re with us or for somebody else.
“We will ensure that those islands will not be used to spy on us, will not be used as a staging point for any adverse action on our interest in Subic Bay,” he added.
Lorenzana said he had asked the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority to give him copies of documents concerning the Fuga island development. He will also meet with the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority next week about the Chinese-backed projects in Chiquita and Grande.
Senator Risa Hontiveros has filed a resolution seeking an investigation into a reported plan to develop these three “strategic” Philippine islands with the help of Chinese financiers.
Hontiveros said the alleged Chinese investors’ plan to develop the three isles could be Beijing’s “creeping annexation” of the Philippines.
“These are no ordinary islands. These parcels of land are strategic maritime fronts that play a significant role in our military history, which only proves how invaluable they are to our national security,” Hontiveros said.
The waters surrounding Fuga Island is home to telecommunications cables. The island also served as a jump-off point for troops during World War II, Navy spokesperson Capt. Jonathan Zata earlier said.
Hontiveros also raised an alarm over the reported plan to develop the 32-hectare Island Cove Resort property in Kawit, Cavite, into a Philippine offshore gaming operator (POGO) complex with housing facilities for an estimated 20,000 foreign workers.
She said the Chinese investments were “unsettling,” as those put the country’s military and national security in a vulnerable position.
“We look to the Senate to rise to the occasion and to seek the truth. We hope that the investigation is conducted through the lens of Filipino values that uphold our integrity, sovereignty and dignity,” Hontiveros said.
Island Cove is around 3.5 kilometers from the Danilo Atienza Air Base, home of the Philippine Air Force’s 15th Strike Wing and Naval Base Heracleo Alano, which contains the Naval Sea System Command that operates the Armed Forces’ largest industrial complex.
Senator Leila de Lima has warned that the project “could be the start of a possible colonization,” but Lorenzana said China does not have territorial claims in Cavite.
“I still believe, until proven otherwise, the purpose of those POGOs is just for POGO, not anything else,” Lorenzana said.
“That is a supposition: that later on, they’re going to use it against us. But I don’t see that happening.”