Lawmakers oppose reopening POGOs after lockdown, say it would send conflicting messages on gov't priority

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 22) — At least two lawmakers are opposing recent calls to allow Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs) to resume operations after the enhanced community quarantine, saying that they are not under any essential industry needed to battle the overcome the outbreak.

Senator Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan and House Minority Leader Bienvenido "Benny" Abante Jr. said Tuesday that the government should resolve its pending issues with the gaming industry before allowing POGO employees to work, as this would send "conflicting" signals to the rest of the country deprived from their livelihoods because of the enforcement of the lockdown.

"Masyado naman atang malakas ang kapit nitong mga Chinese na operators ng POGO sa matataas na opisyal ng Gobyernong Duterte at atat na atat itong unahin pa ang mga dayuhang Chinese na magkatrabaho ulit kaysa sa ating mga kababayan?" Pangilinan said in a statement

[Translation: These Chinese POGO operators seem to have a strong hold of the Duterte administration, as our officials are very insistent on prioritizing these foreigners to work before our countrymen.]

In a separate statment, Abante also stressed that the country can do without any forms of gambling during the pandemic.

“The operative word here is ‘essential;’ it is my view that POGOs are not an essential industry needed by the country as we work to overcome the outbreak. Gambling, in all shapes and forms, is not essential. It is a vice — one that any country can do without, whether it be the Philippines or China," Abante said.

Abante added that resuming their operations just so that the government can earn revenue "makes little sense."

Abante and Pangilinan noted that it is the government itself which earlier pointed out that the industry has failed to settle its dues.

“In hearings in the House and the Senate, we have been told that one, we cannot even properly keep track of and document POGO workers; and two, that we have not been able to collect taxes from them,” said Abante.

"Boost state funds? Eh, DOF (Department of Finance) na nga ang nagsasabi na ni hindi nga nagbabayad ng bilyon-bilyong pisong buwis ang mga iyan," Pangilinan said.

[Translation: Boost state funds? The DOF already said in the past that they can't even pay billions of pesos' worth of taxes.]

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Tuesday that the resumption of POGO operations is among the issues still being decided upon by President Rodrigo Duterte.

"May mga industriya na dapat buksan —industriya na low-risk sa population pero high-impact to the economy. Ang POGO kabahagi po ‘yan ng industriya na nagbibigay ng cash resource sa ating pamahalaan sa pamamagitan ng buwis," he said.

[Translation: There are industries that should be opened — industries that are low-risk in population but provide high impact to the economy. POGOs are part of that industry because they give cash resource to our government through taxes.]

ACT-CIS Party-list Rep. Eric Go Yap proposed last Monday to allow the reopening of POGOs to give the country a "much-needed boost" in its tax collection system.

Pending anomalies

The Bureau of Internal Revenue earlier revealed that over ₱27 billion worth of tax liabilities remain uncollected from the POGO sector.

The Anti-Money Laundering Council previously said POGOs generate a mere ₱7 billion in net inflows. This money is retained as a huge chunk of the ₱30-billion capital sent to the country that is subsequently pulled back out.

However, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee noted that this only translates to a "negligible" 0.04 percent of the domestic economy, and that the social ills that POGOs bring to the country are not worth the regulation fees that the government also earns from.

Senator Richard Gordon previously said that all money laundering activities would not have proliferated and authorities could have taken full measures to stop them if Duterte had not been "too soft" on China.

The Philippine National Police previously reported police operations versus POGO sex dens, which mostly cater exclusively to Chinese workers. Some 199 women who got involved in prostitution have been rescued. There have also been 73 casino-related kidnapping cases in the last three years, which targeted Chinese nationals.

While these issues were raised a few months back, Malacañang continued to shrug off the controversies, noting that Duterte should not be rushed into making a decision.

On March 16, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said that POGOs had to be closed, following the President's order to close down all non-essential establishments to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez previously bared that the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation has reportedly written to Duterte to recommend the resumption of POGO operations, pending the fate of the Luzon-wide lockdown. The matter was referred to the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases during its meeting last week.

Duterte will announce his decision on the fate of the enhanced community quarantine on Thursday.

CNN Philippines' Melissa Lopez contributed to this report.