Pro-OFW groups on Wednesday met with Customs officials to clarify certain issues regarding the inspection of balikbayan boxes suspected of having contraband, but the dialogue still left some questions unanswered.
For one, the dialogue failed to definitely identify the role of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) in the inspection of balikbayan boxes, according to Susan Ople, president of the Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute, a member of the OFW Coalition.
"Unresolved pa rin 'yung role ng OWWA sa pagbabantay and then 'yung concerns ng OFW reps dahil hindi talaga namin kaya," she said. "At sa tingin ko may problema rin sa security in case may contraband nga. Wala namang legal cover ang OFW to perform that function."
For transparency purposes, the BOC has proposed that inspections on balikbayan boxes with suspected contraband be done in the presence of OWWA and OFW representatives. OWWA had earlier expressed its reluctance to be part of the inspection, saying it is not part of its mandate and it does not have the manpower for it.
Case in point
Pro-OFW groups grew wary of BOC's scheme after one of their representatives, Engr. Nelson P. Ramirez of the United Filipino Seafarers (UFS), was called to join inspections of three container vans that allegedly held contraband cigarettes.
"In that particular case, harm has been done. Binuksan na 'yung balikbayan box ng inosenteng mga OFW. Dinaan nga sa x-ray, pero dahil merong tip yung customs police, kelangang buksan pa rin. Tapos nun, wala naman pala," Ople said.
"Anong redress? Ganun na lang po ba 'yun? 'Pag nagkamali yung customs, sorry na lang? Pero kami, kailangan laging nandun? Parang kami pa 'yung patunay," she added.
While they were unable to settle some issues, both parties agreed to have another dialogue in the future.
Also during Wednesday's meeting, the two parties agreed that the proposed Customs Modernization and Tariff Act (CMTA), which has been pending in Congress since 2013, needs immediate approval for the greater convenience of OFWs.
During a dialogue, Deputy Customs Commissioner Arturo Lachica said the modernization will raise the tax exempt limit imposed on balikbayan boxes.
"Yun ang nila-lobby natin, na ma-approve na 'yung CMTA dahil po nasa batas talaga 'yan na nakalagay na ang limit P10,000... Pero, ang sabi nga natin, ang Bureau of Customs is cognizant nga na matagal na masyado 'yung batas natin," he said.
"There is a unified position na dapat ipasa na yung Customs Modernization and Tariff Act that will include the increase in the amount of the value of goods that an OFW is entitled to bring home," Ople, for her part, said.
The BOC also said that it will ask the Philippine Overseas Employment Association (POEA) for a list of Filipinos registered working abroad to expedite the processing of their packages.
Lachica also said the BoC is addressing the system of bribery called 'tara' within the bureau, which is supposedly being committed for faster processing of balikbayan boxes in ports.
"I am categorically saying that there might be issues sa 'tara', but that's what we trying to eliminate," he said. —KBK/JST, GMA News