Gov't allows POGOs to partially reopen amid community quarantine

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 1) — The government's COVID-19 task force has allowed Philippine offshore gaming operators or POGOs to resume partial operations, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque confirmed on Friday.

Roque said online gambling services are part of the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, which are allowed to open under the new quarantine rules. A skeleton workforce, or only 30 percent of the total number of employees, are allowed to report for work.

"Ang BPOs po ay ina-allow. Ang POGO po talaga ay BPO," he said in a media briefing.

[Translation: BPOs are allowed to operate. POGOs are part of the BPO (sector).]

Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) Chairperson Andrea Domingo lobbied with government officials to allow POGOs to reopen, arguing that revenues from POGOs can be a significant source of funds for the government’s COVID-19 response.

"Essential ito kasi we need revenues. Revenue-generating. Employment-generating. But with no threat in spreading COVID-19," she said in an interview with CNN Philippines.

[Translation: This is essential because we need revenues. POGOs generate revenues and employment, minus the threat of spreading the virus.]

"Lahat ng proceeds na kikitain ng BPOs na galing sa POGO ay lahat ilalaan, 100 percent, dito sa gastusin related sa COVID-19, " Roque added.

[Translation: All taxes from POGOs will be used, 100 percent, to fund the COVID-19 response.]

President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman clarified only compliant POGOs are allowed to go back to business. He said PAGCOR and the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) are tasked to verify if they have complied with their tax requirements before giving them permits to operate once again.

Domingo said PAGCOR and the BIR will be stringent with this crucial step.

"Kaya nga kami hindi namin papayagan mag-resume ng operation sinuman na hindi cinertify ng BIR na paid up lahat ng taxes nila as of March 2020 at sila ay registered sa BIR. So we are coordinating with BIR very closely. That is included in our requirements,” Domingo said.

[Translation: We will not allow the resumption of those businesses without BIR certification.]

The gaming sector has faced several issues in the past few months.

The BIR earlier revealed that over ₱27-billion worth of tax liabilities remain uncollected from the POGO sector.

The Anti-Money Laundering Council also said POGOs generate only ₱7 billion in net inflows, a value the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee said only translates to a "negligible" 0.04 percent of the domestic economy. The committee has also opened inquiries into POGO-related crimes in the Philippines, including sex trafficking and the controversial money laundering scheme.

In March, PAGCOR admitted there are over 100 unlicensed POGO outlets under investigation.

Lawmakers against decision to reopen POGOs

Several lawmakers criticized the government's decision to ease the quarantine rules in favor of POGOs, despite their many violations.

Senate Labor Committee Chairman Joel Villanueva said there is no reasonable explanation for allowing POGOs to return to business.

"I don't see the logic for allowing POGO to operate. Even prior to the pandemic, we said that this industry has no positive net benefit to Filipino society. With the pandemic, they might just contribute to further spreading the disease," he said in a statement.

Senator Risa Hontiveros, who recently signed a resolution blocking POGOs from returning in the country, said the government is undermining its efforts to curb the virus by allowing these workers to gather in their offices.

"Hindi na nga nagbabayad ng buwis, dawit pa sa mga kaso ng kurapsyon at money laundering, at sangkot pa sa sex at human trafficking. The resumption of POGO means mobility for at least 120,000 POGO workers, most of them in the NCR, the epicenter of the COVID-19 transmission," she tweeted.

[Translation: They are not paying taxes, they are involved in corrupt practices, in money laundering, and sex and human trafficking.]

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said authorities will likely encounter problems in ensuring that POGOs comply with social distancing rules as they restart operations. Citing news reports of police raids in cramped POGO offices and housing, he said authorities might have to go the extra mile in making sure that the “new normal” rules meant to prevent further infections are followed by these companies.

All POGO workers, including the 31,600 Filipinos employed by these companies, need to undergo COVID-19 swab or rapid testing before they can report back to work.