In the wake of persistent reports of a spike in kidnapping cases involving Chinese nationals working in Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs), there’s been a growing clamor for the new administration to close down these controversial gaming sites altogether.
It’s not just the kidnapping angle, however, that’s giving authorities a king-sized headache.
The POGOs, staffed by Chinese nationals and catering mostly to their compatriots back home, are also alleged to be engaged in human trafficking, bringing in undocumented Chinese workers and harboring those with expired visas and overstaying in the country.
In addition, some POGOs are believed to be operating illegally since they do not have the required licenses and permits from the government. Others are also said to be evading the payment of the correct taxes.
Given all this, Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno is said to be amenable to the idea of closing down all POGOs in the country.
Recently, lawmakers, including Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, Senator Grace Poe, Manila 6th District Rep. Bienvenido Abante and Iloilo 1st District Rep. Janette Garin, also expressed support for sending POGOs packing.
Among the reasons they cited was that the revenues collected by the government from POGOs have not been enough to justify their continued operations.
On the other hand, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda has warned that a total ban on POGOs because of recent kidnappings and illegal activities involving Chinese nationals might be harmful to the country’s economy.
The lawmaker, who chairs the House ways and means committee, described the suggestion to close down all POGOs as akin to burning down a house “just to kill the rat inside.”
For Salceda, “a blanket ban on a specific sector, when there are laws that already exist to prevent abuses in any kind of business, will be seen as arbitrary…My stand is for the government to wield the full weight of the law against illegal gaming operations. But our policy cannot be to give up an entire industry just because there are bad actors. All industries have bad actors.”
His suggestion is to keep POGOs within zones “ring-fenced from the rest of the country.” New licenses may be granted in these zones, but existing licenses will be allowed only to complete their leases. Any offshore gaming that operates outside such zones will be considered illegal.
He argued that the administrative and support staff of POGOs are Filipinos, and a sudden downturn in office occupancy will kill jobs and cost at least P18.9 billion in rental income from offices, and P28.6 billion in housing rent.
The lawmaker’s stand in defense of POGOs is likely to be given due consideration by the national government, especially since it needs all the resources it can generate to pay off huge debts from the past administration’s COVID-19 response.
Meantime, the administration should do what needs to be done to rationalize POGO operations. The Justice Department, for instance, wants illegal POGO workers to be summarily deported for overstaying.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila is backing the national government’s move to crack down on crimes related to POGOs.
President Marcos Jr. and the Cabinet should study the matter carefully and weigh both the economic, political and legal repercussions of continued POGO presence in the country.