MANILA (UPDATED) - The Bureau of Customs (BOC) will no longer randomly open balikbayan boxes, the bureau announced Monday night.
The BOC, in a press statement, said the decision was made after President Aquino met with Customs chief Alberto Lina and Cesar Purisima earlier in the day.
"[Aquino] emphasized that OFW families view the balikbayan box as an integral part of the family relationship to nurture loved ones at home and as a tangible sign of their love and concern for their family members," the bureau said.
To prevent tampering or theft of the content of balikbayan boxes, Aquino ordered the Bureau of Customs to immediately do the following:
"First, there will be no random or arbitrary physical inspection of balikbayan boxes. Moving forward, all containers of balikbayan boxes should undergo mandatory x-ray and K-9 examination--at no cost to the sender or the OFW," the statement said. "Only in cases where there are derogatory findings from the x-ray or K-9 examination will there be a physical inspection of goods."
"Second, in the event of a physical inspection, the Bureau will request that an Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) representative or a designated officer of an OFW Association be present, with provisions for CCTV monitoring of the inspection areas," it added.
The BOC warned that government employees who violate these protocols and steal from care packages will face criminal charges.
"We encourage the public to submit videos and photographic evidence of illegal acts to the Commissioner of Customs," it said.
NO BACKTRACKING ON TAXES
The statement, however, did not say anything on taxes imposed on the content of balikbayan boxes.
Lina earlier defended taxes on the content of balikbayan boxes, saying the bureau is mandated to prevent the entry of contraband items as well as assess the value of items that need to be taxed.
The Customs chief noted that by definition, balikbayan boxes are packages brought by overseas Filipinos returning to the Philippines. On the other hand, "balikbayan boxes" sent by Filipinos who are not returning to the country should be considered "shopping boxes."
He said overseas Filipinos returning to the country are given tax exemptions for items with value of up to P10,000, based on a presidential decree issued by then President Ferdinand Marcos.
Every item sent via padala package is taxable, he added.
"[If you live abroad], you can bring anything but you will be taxed. There is no exemption. If you are a balikbayan with the intention of coming back to our country, with your passport and everything, like people who have studied abroad or returning OFWs, these are the only people given the privilege to bring in goods and that will not be taxed if the value of the goods is P10,000 and below," he said.
He denied that the actual exemption is $500 and below, saying the exchange rate then when the presidential decree was issued was about $1:PHP7 or about P3,500. He said the exemption has been raised to P10,000.
PART OF FILIPINO CULTURE
Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz earlier opposed the random opening of balikbayan boxes, saying that the care packages are part of an eduring Filipino cultural trait.
"The balik-bayan box is part of Filipino culture and tradition and I don't think OFWs will abuse this tradition to send in or smuggle contraband that will put them and their families in danger," Baldoz said in a statement.
Baldoz said the balikbayan boxes should not be treated as commercial transactions as these are "re very personal and close to the heart of OFWs."
"Majority of OFWs set aside and patiently wait for months whatever material possession they have acquired abroad - clothes, shoes, perfumes, canned goods, home appliances, and personal gadgets - and send these home as gifts and as symbols of their generosity and love, not as items or objects of commerce... their monetary value may not be so high or great to merit BOC's special interest for revenue generation," she added.