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Don’t mind the “No Remittance Day” threat!

Treating “balikbayan” boxes like love letters or personal letters sent by overseas Filipinos workers (OFWs) to their loved ones in the Philippines to avoid their opening at ports of entry in the Philippines as ordered by President Aquino should make the senders of the boxes happy. This would enable them to insert money, checks, traveler’s checks, jewelries, money orders, pornographic materials, gambling cards, pirated products like DVD, CD, tapes, illegal drugs, gun parts and ammunitions and goods that may not be detected by X-ray machines or K-9 dogs.

I am suggesting that Philippine Bureau of Customs officials appeal to the President to reconsider his order of “walang bukasan” (no opening) of balikbayan boxes not because of the “no-remittance-day” threat by an immigrant group but because this would stop the smugglers from doing their illegal trade.

Although unscrupulous employees of the Philippine Postal Corporation may now be less tempted to open love letters or personal letters as a result of the popularity of the remittance services, there are still many senders who insert $100 bills in their letters. 

Even balikbayans (Filipino returnees) who were travelling by airplanes and were bringing balikbayan boxes had fallen victims of pilferage done under their “very noses.” This is usually done when the balikbayan boxes were belatedly loaded on the carousel. Some airport personnel would open the boxes and steal “gently”, “pre-owned” (used) clothes and shoes and other personal stuff that catch their fancy.” They then hurriedly closed the boxes before they loaded them on the carousel.

If personal letters and balikbayan boxes at airports are being pilfered, what is the guarantee that balikbayan boxes transported by ocean-going vessels for weeks are not pilfered at ports in the Philippines?

The Bureau of Customs headed by Commissioner Alberto Lina should be vigilant while opening randomly balikbayan boxes even after the boxes had gone past X-ray machines and K-9 Units because there might be money, manager’s checks and illegal drugs, etc. in the containers undetected by the X-ray machines or K-9 dogs.

If the Bureau of Customs is really interested in protecting the interest of balikbayan box senders, its personnel should demand from Philippine brokers papers showing that cargo forwarders in the United States have license numbers from the Office of Transportation Intermediaries (OTI) for Ocean Freight Forwarder and Non-Vessel-Operating Common Carrier (NVOCC) issued by the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission.

The OTI/NVOCC license is like auto insurance coverage issued to drivers. This could be retrieved from their glove compartment in case they are flagged down for traffic violations.

A cargo forwarder normally shells out 10% of the surety coverage to obtain the NVOCC license whose amount of coverage ranges from $75,000 to $200,000 or $7,500 to $20,000 premium paid annually.

If the ocean-going vessels carrying balikbayan boxes could not deliver the boxes to consignees, perhaps either due to fire or sinking of the vessels or other untoward events, the vessels could collect insurance payment from sureties if they have OTI/NVOCC licenses. They could use the payments to restitute senders of the boxes of their losses.

Balikbayan box senders should ask for OTI/NVOCC license number from freight forwarders before they entrust their boxes to the forwarders. OTI/NVOCC license should be prominently displayed in the offices of the forwarders just like a business permit.

If there are damages to or theft of contents of the balikbayan boxes while these are in transit from the Customs warehouse to the consignee’s warehouse or while stored in warehouses of the consignees/brokers in the Philippines, it is not clear if the consignee brokers/Philippine forwarders have to pay restitutions to the balikbayan box recipients.

A Philippine Department of Trade and Industry’s Shippers Bureau advisory issued on Dec. 6, 2013 penalizes only the consignee brokers for damages due to theft or fire but is silent if the recipients get any restitution.

In 2013, DTI filed charges against at least 45 foreign consolidators/principals and their Philippine counterparts/agents for operating without DTI accreditations and eight others have been recommended to the Department of Justice and Office of the City/Provincial Fiscals for criminal investigation. But there is no word yet from DTI if the foreign consolidators and agents were convicted.

On a bright note, balikbayan box senders are lucky campers if compared to their counterparts from Mexico who pay up to $185-$230 per shipment of each of 24”x24”x24” boxes of goodies or those from India who pay up to $250 for each of the boxes being shipped to their loved ones in their native lands. Senders of boxes to the Philippines pay out only $50-$85 per box. ([email protected])