‘Handle with care’ - this is the note usually attached to the balikbayan box. This box has come to represent the traditional way Filipino migrants extend their love and affection to their loved ones back home. The sacrifices of every migrant worker is somewhat eased whenever they connect with their families by sending their remittances and the much awaited balikbayan box.
The recent attempt by the Bureau of Customs, headed by Commissioner Alberto Lina to impose random physical inspection of balikbayan boxes in order to counteract smuggling and loss of revenue shows blatant disrespect for this important family tradition and all migrant workers. These hardworking people were responsible for a record-high contribution of USD 24.3 billion in remittances in 2014, yet they are disrespected by being likened to smugglers and their important family connection pursued for careless disruption.
What did this proposal reveal about the political issues and financial interests that surround this issue?
1. Commissioner Lina instead of targeting the migrant workers and tarnishing them with petty criminality, should focus on the big-time smugglers and the enormous amounts of vital revenue lost to our impoverished people. How much revenue is lost on smuggled luxury cars and items for the rich? How was it possible that large containers of waste coming from Canada were not detected by our customs and able to enter the country freely? We want to see big smugglers put behind bars first, then perhaps the office might gain some credibility.
2. Forwarding companies like that of Commissioner Lina’s business Air 21 , which has an average annual shipment of 5 million balikbayan boxes would definitely have benefited from the stricter rules. Private forwarding companies already have easy access to their customers data thanks to the poor data protection associated with tracking of boxes. Subsequently, migrant workers are now routinely bombarded with advertising. Additionally inappropriate use of this data by his company allows government agencies to forward documents and notices pertaining to labour cases to migrants – how much profit does his company make from this? How much revenue is lost to the duty exception given to selected forwarders?
3. There are numerous complaints of lost and damaged balikbayan boxes from migrants and their families. Is the government not concerned about the desecration of the box that connects filipino families? What is the Bureau doing about minimising delay in delivery due to inspection, compensating for lost and stolen items and holding those responsible to account? What legal mechanism is there for migrant workers voice to be heard, apart from resorting to social media to complain?
4. Before subjecting the migrants care packages to scutiny, let us first open the accounts of employees and all officials working in the bureau. For every Filipino it is an open secret that the Bureau of Customs is tainted with corruption and bribery issues. Even shippers and cargo forwarders will attest to the rampant corruption. Whilst migrant workers and their activities come under ever increasing surveillance and control, transparency and accountability of government agencies continues to remain elusive.
5. It is appalling that this issue has been exploited by political rivals of the current administration and even aspiring presidential candidates to boost their political campaigns. This insensitivity demonstrates how politicians view the migrant workers in general: as ‘milking cows’ for remittances and later as captured votes for the election. Shame on politician’s for using this emotive issue for migrants to advance their political agenda!
There must end to the creation of any policies that place an additional burden on migrant workers. Let us see evidence of real commitment to the social welfare of these filipinos rather than just viewing them through an economic lens. The government’s focus should be to prioritize services offered to migrant workers and their families, especially women migrant workers who are often victims and survivors of abuse and exploitation.
Stop harassing the migrant workers and their families!
Kanlungan Centre Foundation Inc.
77 K-10 Street, East Kamias, Quezon City