Senators condemn proposed resumption of 'non-essential' POGO industry during COVID-19 crisis

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 22 2020 05:19 PM | Updated as of Apr 23 2020 01:43 AM

MANILA - Several senators on Wednesday condemned the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation's (PAGCOR) proposal to allow online gambling companies to resume operations during the coronavirus crisis to supposedly boost government revenues needed for response efforts.

Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) have not been paying proper taxes and are not considered "essential" industries, at least 4 senators against the reopening of POGOs said in separate statements.

"I am totally against [the] resumption of POGO operations," Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said.

Drilon explained that the government is considering a "selective lockdown" for "essential industries" that could "revive our economy" - such as construction and manufacturing - to "enable workers to earn income." POGOs are not among them, he said.

"The resumption of POGO will not serve the rationale for a partial lifting of the enhanced community quarantine to enable essential industries to operate," he said.

"Since when did POGO become an essential industry?"

Sen. Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan questioned why several government officials seemed "eager" to ensure the job security of Chinese nationals working in the country, while most Filipino workers remain barred from reporting to the office to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.

"Masyado naman atang malakas ang kapit nitong mga Chinese na operators ng POGO sa matataas ng 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. 

(It seems that these Chinese POGO operators have strong backing from high officials in the Duterte government, and that these officials are so eager to prioritize giving back jobs to Chinese nationals over Filipinos.)

"Uunahin pa ang negosyo at trabaho ng mga Tsino sa POGO habang walang makain at walang hanapbuhay ang mga Pilipino dahil sa lockdown?" he said. 

(Prioritizing the businesses and jobs of Chinese nationals engaged in POGOs while Filipinos remain hungry and jobless because of the lockdown?)

POGO TAXES

The issue stemmed from PAGCOR chief Andrea Domingo's letter to President Rodrigo Duterte, which recommended the resumption of POGO operations despite a Luzon-wide work stoppage for "non-essential" industries.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque earlier said that POGOs served as "cash resources" for the government, but that the President has yet to decide if online gambling firms would be allowed to resume operations during the health crisis.

Senators questioned how much taxes were generated from the online gambling industry.

"Boost state funds? Eh Department of Finance na nga ang nagsasabi na ni hindi nga nagbabayad ng bilyong-bilyong pisong buwis ang mga 'yan," Pangilinan said.

(The Department of Finance itself said POGOs have not been paying billions in taxes.)

"Most of them also don’t pay taxes. So what’s the rationale for allowing them to operate?" said Sen. Joel Villanueva, who led a Senate inquiry that found that some Chinese-operated POGOs failed to pay some P50 billion in taxes.

"It is not only a high risk sector —it has a huge potential of spreading the disease because there are several workers working in an enclosed area and are residing in high-rise condominiums," Villanueva said.

Chinese-run POGOs reportedly provided small living spaces for several employees in various communities in Metro Manila and nearby regions.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who headed several Senate hearings about sex trafficking and human rights abuses in POGOs, said it was time to stop online gambling operations in the Philippines.

"POGOs join a third category that we might call 'less than non-essential... POGOs are non-essential to the economy. POGOs are just not worth it," she said.

"Hindi na nga buo ang binabayad nilang tax, may korapsyon at sex trafficking pang pinapalaganap," she said.

(They are not paying taxes in full, and they are also propagating corruption and sex trafficking.)

"It's high time we send POGOs home," she said.

Before the Senate paused for a 2-month break in March, several senators have already been eyeing a measure that would permanently ban POGOs in the Philippines after congressional investigations found that some operators have been bribing immigration officials to smuggle workers into the country.