Recently, I heard news about the Bureau of Customs (BOC) intending to open Balikbayan Boxes for inspection. The Manila Times reported in an August 17, 2015 article:
“The items [inside the boxes] may as well be considered as smuggled goods for non-compliance with the Philippine Tariff and Customs Code,” Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina said on Monday.
A spot check that he had conducted confirmed reports that unscrupulous traders were importing high-value goods in commercial quantities through the balikbayan boxes.
As a former (and hopefully incoming) OFW myself, I am also concerned about the news. It was a monthly habit of mine when I was still working abroad to send goods to my family here packed in boxes besides the money that I remit along with it — to share some simple things that I enjoy in the country where I am. What concerns me are a few reports of missing boxes, or boxes that were damaged and robbed. The BOC is the only agency authorized to check the inside of a balikbayan box, so aside from the courier and the airport or port personnel, they are the next likely suspects. Should they receive the box already tampered or damaged, they will have alerted the owner, right? And the recent announcement of the BOC chairman raises the risk of more incidences of tampered balikbayan boxes.
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However, while the boxes should be treated with utmost respect, since their contents are bought using hard-earned money of the OFWs, I also acknowledge the fact there are Filipinos who are, to use Commissioner Lina’s word, unscrupulous, who exploit balikbayan boxes to ship smuggled goods and that the country does need to be strict and levy taxes on all incoming goods. But in balancing the issue not only should we consider the urgent need of Customs to strictly implement its rules, we also need to picture to ourselves that these boxes are products of OFWs’ sweat, tears and sometimes blood. These contested packages are as sacred as the revenue the bureau wants to derive from them. I should know because I saw it myself.
In my analysis of the issue, let me start by giving a brief background about the function and basis of the BOC on this.
The Function of the Bureau of Customs
The last law that I know regarding the BOC is RA 1937. In its Title I, Part I, it states the function of the BOC, to wit:
Sec. 602 – Functions of the Bureau. – The general duties, powers and jurisdiction of the bureau shall include:
a. The assessment and collection of the lawful revenues from imported articles and all other dues, fees, charges, fines and penalties accruing under the tariff and customs law.
b. The prevention and suppression of smuggling and other frauds upon the customs.
l. The supervision and control over the handling of foreign mails arriving in the Philippines, for the purpose of the collection of the lawful duty on dutiable articles thus imported and the prevention of smuggling through the medium of such mails.
I’m sure there would be some readers who would tell me that I should have not shown the BOC function here because it is given. I did that for the sake of fairness and to show that indeed it is within the duty of the BOC to impose taxes on all imported goods and prevent smuggling.
The Basis of Opening Balikbayan Boxes
In a report by Rappler.com on August 19, 2015, it said:
“The existing rules are obsolete, and we may have to reassess our coordination and processes with consolidators for stricter and improved compliance,” Customs Commissioner Bert Lina, referring to a Customs Memorandum Order for consolidated shipments from Filipinos abroad dating in the 1990s.
What is that Customs Memorandum Order (CMO)?
The Rappler.com report said that the memorandum order was in the 1990s. I tried going to BOC website but it seems down as of this writing. I resorted to their site’s cached copy and I saw that the earliest CMO posted there was in 2000. Searching more, I was instead led to the FAQs regarding balikbayan boxes.
Question number 7 of it says:
7. ARE THE BALIKBAYAN BOXES OPENED BY THE PHILIPPINE CUSTOMS?
Yes, a 100% examination of the consolidated shipment is required by law.
1. To protect the legitimate interests of consignors/senders and their consignees, in particular, and the transacting public, in general.
2. To protect the interest of the government;
3. To prevent and suppress smuggling and other fraud upon customs.
For the sake of argument, I will submit that there indeed exists a memorandum order or other laws requiring the spot checking of balikbayan boxes so I can now move on to discuss another argument. At least, at this stage I hope I have established fairly that BOC has indeed the duty to inspect, spot check the balikbayan boxes.
Reason for Objection
There have been a few reports of some BOC employees themselves being involved in looting and theft of the contents of the packages that they receive. And there is no telling when and what type of packages the bureau will be opening. Balikbayan boxes are at the mercy of their discretion. In an article entitled “Why Bureau of Customs Should NOT Open Balikbayan Boxes for Inspection”, its author Pinoy OFW explains:
Overseas Filipinos have low regard on reputation of Customs staff
Imagine a less trustworthy person allowed to rummage through the balikbayan box carefully and neatly packed. It can only bring weariness and suspicion that before the box reaches its destination, it could have been pilfered or damaged in transit due to the inspection done hastily. And who can we blame for this lack of trust towards the government agency? According to Social Weather Stations, Bureau of Customs is the most corrupt government agency with a net rating of -63 or very bad…
Victims of these are told to report to the authorities but the question is how fast and efficient really the actions were? And even where there is quick action, will the stolen items be returned in its original state or exactly as what was stolen? At best, the thieves can only return an amount of money equivalent to (or sometimes less than) the value of the stolen or damaged item, which not really helpful.
To help understand how “sacred” these balikbayan boxes are to the OFWs and their families, let me quote an excerpt from former Ambassador, now Congressman Roy Seneres’s open letter to BOC Chairman Alberto Lina:
Since the 1980s, these balikbayan boxes have been a sacred part of the life of an OFW family. It has been such a treasured privilege for our modern day heroes to be able to send their ‘pasalubong’, which is the very symbol of their love and affection wrapped in a box and shipped to their loved ones, without thinking of any burdensome charges by the government.
[…] They toil and work so hard away from their family and have only the balikbayan box as means a means of sending back home the fruits of their labor (Emphasis supplied by author)
(Source: localpulse.net – VIRAL: Cong. Roy Seneres open letter to BOC chair Alberto Lina)
With much emotion invested to fill the box, you cannot blame the OFWs for reacting badly to Chairman Lina’s statement.
Speaking from experience, I am offering the following solutions to the problem:
1. Couriers should play the role as representatives of the BOC in the countries that they are servicing. OFWs who intend to send balikbayan boxes to the Philippines should wrap their packages in front of these couriers so that they can both witness what are the contents of the box. The couriers therefore will list down the contents that they saw and both they and the OFW will sign the list. The signed list will be sent together with the box so the receiving customs official here will have less trouble determining the contents of the box and can help him assess how much tax will be imposed (or not be imposed) to the package.
What I have experienced so far is, these couriers will simply ask me what is my declared value of my cargo and they will simply weigh the package and charge me based on both. My balikbayan box is all wrapped up during the entire process. With my proposal, the courier may agree or not whether declared value is fair or not and adjust their charges accordingly.
2. Or, if the couriers cannot be trusted, then the BOC should start employing staff abroad that will go with the couriers in doing (1). In the PinoyOFW article cited above, the author mentioned that in the planned move of the BOC, it could mean employing additional staff just to do random spot checking of suspicious packages. I say let the number of additional personnel to be stationed abroad be proportional to the volume of balikbayan box per country. The point of the exercise is that there at least be a third party to minimize if not prevent wholly, collusion between the courier and the OFW consignee. And through the BOC staff abroad, they can advise on the spot the consignee how much tax would the Philippine government charge based on what he saw.
If there will still be collusion in (2) with all three or more persons involved, then truly Filipinos need a super major attitude overhaul!
The receiving BOC officer in the Philippines can look through the list attached to the balikbayan box and he can confirm it through x-rays (and other means without disturbing boxes) if the list is honest or not. It’s the BOC and given their experience, they are (or should be) good at this. If the list and x-ray does not match, then there is a possibility that the package is indeed suspicious and requires opening. With this, the need to open balikbayan boxes can be limited to exception cases and not performed as frequently as Commissioner Lina had expressed (because I believe that is how most OFWs understand it the way I myself did).
With regard to the value of the shipment, since the BOC staff abroad had a preliminary assessment, the OFW consignee can have bases for an argument if he does not agree in case the shipment is charged in the Philippines differently.
But when the BOC indeed needs to open balikbayan boxes in extreme cases, as Senator Ralph Recto suggested, it should be done where CCTVs are installed. True, some “evil” BOC staff could simply tamper with the CCTV recording but so far I see no other means of getting another eye in cases where some boxes need to be opened.
If you don’t agree with me then at least let me say this – There’s more than one way to skin a cat. And I’m sure that there are more solutions out there other than what I presented.
I am one with former Ambassador Seneres in pleading with the BOC to reconsider their planned move. I understand that there may be a law that requires you (the BOC) to open some balikbayan boxes but please delay the implementation until you have given the OFWs assurance that there will be no more incidences of looting and theft. Again, and I want to emphasize that, the contents of these boxes should not be taken lightly.
Malacanang and BOC both said they are targeting only suspected smugglers, but I ask them to please explain in detail how they are going to assure us that the OFWs are not going to be hit in the crossfire. If not, OFWs may not send balikbayan boxes anymore for fear of being robbed. And that could mean lesser revenue for the government.
I use to be a future Supreme Court justice.