Image Source: untvweb.com
Image Source: untvweb.com

Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina got it all wrong. He thought that by raising the customs duties for consolidated shipments entering the Philippines, he would get accolades for doing something to raise the agency’s revenue collections. He also thought by ordering a 100-percent examination and enforcing tougher rules on balikbayan boxes, he would be commended for going after smugglers.

But Lina targeted the wrong shippers. The senders of the consolidated shipments known as balikbayan boxes are the millions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who have been hailed as the country’s “modern-day heroes” for enduring difficult working conditions, loneliness, long separation from their family and sometimes abuses from their employers because their own country cannot provide decent jobs for them.

These are people whose main source of happiness is being able to send little “pasalubongs” to their loved ones they left behind.

If Lina were serious about raising the agency’s revenue collections, he just had to go against big-time smugglers and his own corrupt inspectors and examiners in his bureau and the government’s revenues would probably double or triple, and he would be the hero of this “daang matuwid” administration.

But no, he would rather increase the customs duties levied on the balikbayan boxes of the hapless OFWs by 125 percent and dig through the boxes in hopes of finding items that he can tax some more. Never mind that the revenues collected from imposing duties on containers of balikbayan boxes only constitute about one – repeat one – percent of the Bureau of Customs’ annual revenue collections. Never mind, too, that increasing customs duties even by a whopping 125 percent would still hardly make a significant improvement in total collections.

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For some reason, Lina singled out the lowly balikbayan boxes in his quest to improve the image of the bureau that has had four commissioners in five years because of their failure to curb smuggling and meet collection targets.

As soon as word came out that Lina was raising customs duties on balikbayan boxes and has ordered 100-percent examination – meaning every single box – thousands of OFWs stormed social media to ask: “Why us?”

And in just two days, an online petition that was started by a hitherto unknown overseas worker in the United Arab Emirates gathered more than 67,000 signatures!

In the midst of the storm, a Bureau of Customs said it was neither increasing taxes on the balikbayan boxes nor trying to impede existing processes. It said it has not issued any statement on raising taxes on balikbayan boxes. Technically, it is not increasing taxes because contents of balikbayan boxes – as long as they were within existing limitations – are not taxable.

But Lina, in a meeting with customs brokers last July 27, announced a two-tiered increase in customs clearing fees or duties – the first P40,000 increase took effect on August 3, 2015 and another P60,000 to take effect on October 1, 2015.

Following this, the fees per 40-foot container of balikbayan boxes and other consolidated items would total P180,000 from the previous P80,000.

We know that the Filipino freight forwarders, already saddled with added costs due to various reasons, such as DHS inspections, port congestion and truck bans, not to mention the hikes in cost of goods, services and wages, would have to pass some, if not all, of the fee increase. Ultimately, it is the balikbayan box senders – the OFWs and the overseas Filipinos – who would carry the burden of Lina’s insensitivity.

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But senators and congressmen immediately came to the side of the overseas Filipinos and condemned Lina’s plan.

“In the first place, balikbayan boxes are duty- and tax-free packages designed for overseas Filipino workers sending home gifts to their families,” Quezon City Rep. Winston Castelo said. “For the most part, what’s inside the box are household items and goods that are generally exempt from duties. This small favor is negligible compared to the great sacrifices and contributions that our OFWs make that also benefit our national economy.”

Vice President Jejomar Binay said the policy again proves the insensitivity and bungling of the Aquino administration.

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. described it as government bullying of Filipino citizens. “To the BoC, I ask, are you not ashamed? For an OFW, a balikbayan box is the equivalent of his or her love letter to a spouse and the rest of the family. Every item in that box was bought with a specific person and purpose in mind, bought with hard-earned money… So if a single item there gets lost, do you imagine how it feels to an OFW who invested so much emotion and money just to get those goods home?” Marcos said.

He also warned Lina to scrap plans to impose additional fees for forwarding cost. He said, “Mr. Lina, you are a public servant. It is your duty to consult with stakeholders first before embarking on any draconian measure that would turn their lives upside down. You seem bent on bullying our OFWs while turning a blind eye to the large-scale smuggling that goes on in nearly all the ports across the archipelago.”

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In other words, they are saying that we should be telling Commissioner Lina: Back off! ([email protected])