MANILA, Philippines — Senator Risa Hontiveros has filed a resolution, seeking to end the operations of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGO) in the country and to utilize the billions of its unpaid taxes for the government’s COVID-19 response.
“It’s ‘pay up’ (time) and ‘time’s up’ for POGO,” Hontiveros said in a statement on Tuesday.
Her resolution came after the government announced that they are considering resuming POGO operations to supplement the funds needed to combat COVID-19.
The senator filed Senate Resolution No. 368 on Monday “expressing the sense of the Senate to disallow the resumption of POGO operations in the country taking into consideration the financial, social, and the human costs of POGO operations and to direct the P50 billion unpaid taxes of POGOs to fund the government’ response to COVID-19.”
After President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire Luzon under an enhanced community quarantine, all businesses, including POGOs, have been temporarily closed to contain the spread of COVID-19.
But ACT-CIS party list Rep. Eric Yap, chair of the House appropriations committee, asked the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) to allow the resumption of POGO operations, saying revenues from the industry could augment funds for the country’ response to the pandemic.
“The government should be thinking of ways of how to get Filipinos back to our livelihood, instead of ways of how best to resume POGO,” Hontiveros said.
“POGO is a non-essential industry. Hindi pwedeng business-as-usual. Unahin nating makabalik sa trabaho ang mga Pilipino, hindi ang POGO,” she further said, adding that resuming POGO operations would put the health of Filipinos at risk.
“The resumption of POGO would mean allowing the mobility of at least 120,000 POGO workers,” Hontiveros pointed out.
“This would defeat all the efforts that Filipinos are undertaking to contain COVID-19. POGOs are a health risk,” she added.
According to Hontiveros, there can be more than 120,000 POGO workers in the country.
There are around 70,000 Chinese nationals illegally working in POGO, she added citing reports.
“POGOs are also overwhelmingly located in Metro Manila, where most of the country’s COVID-19 cases are. If they continue to operate, there would be an inevitable second wave of COVID-19 transmission that our public health system would not be able to handle,” she said.
The senator pointed out that the collection of POGOs’ unpaid taxes, not their reopening, would reinforce the country’s fight against the global pandemic.
“P50 billion could be redirected to fund our health and economic response to COVID-19. We can provide a cash assistance of PhP 5,000 each for 10 million Filipinos, if POGOs pay what they owe us,” she said.
During a hearing of the Senate labor committee in February, an official from the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) said that POGOs in the country has yet to pay an estimated total of P50 billion from their franchise, corporate and other taxes.
The same hearing also revealed that many of the POGO workers in the country have yet to secure tax identification numbers (TINs), Hontiveros noted.
“This unwelcome revelation was exacerbated with the discovery made by (the Department of Labor and Employment) that there are 4,000 Chinese POGO workers using the same TIN,” the senator said in her resolution.
“The POGO employees with fraudulent TINs mean that they are not paying the proper taxes as prescribed by Philippine law, which are reminiscent of the actions by tax evaders,” she added.
In another hearing by the Senate blue ribbon committee, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) told senators that P14 billion of the P54 billion in transactions by POGOs from 2017 to 2019 were linked to “suspicious activities.”
Figures presented by AMLC Executive Director Mel Racela during the hearing also showed that around P138 million in Pogo transactions were linked to drug trafficking.
Hontiveros, as chair of the Senate women committee, also led previous hearings into the alleged sex trafficking linked with the Pogo industry.
She also exposed an alleged multi-billion scheme within the Bureau of Immigration which purportedly offer VIP services to POGO workers entering the country.
“Mas mabuti pang singilin na lang sila ng kanilang ‘di pa nababayarang buwis. We need to demand that POGOs pay their yet-unpaid taxes, instead of allowing their resumption,” Hontiveros said.
“If POGO operations continue, these crimes would also likely to continue. POGOs are a nightmare to regulate. Given the financial, social and human costs POGOs continue to bring into our country, they’re just not worth it,” she added.
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