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OFW groups welcomed Custom Chief’s public apology; bats for special provisions for OFWs in proposed CMTA

The Blas F. Ople Policy Center together with other OFW groups belonging to the OFW Coalition, welcomed the public apology of Bureau of Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina made during the Senate public hearing on the balikbayan box controversy this morning.

“The OFW Coalition composed of various OFW groups and advocates welcome the public apology of Commissioner Alberto Lina, and look forward to contributing to the creation of a special provision in the proposed Customs Modernization and Tariff Act (CMTA) in favor of our modern-day heroes,” Susan Ople, president of the Center said.

During the said hearing, Commissioner Lina apologized for the misunderstanding that led to a rift between the BoC and OFWs worldwide. He emphasized that the BoC’s campaign was aimed at unscrupulous individuals and syndicates that try to take advantage of the lax procedures for containers that bring in balikbayan boxes to smuggle their own contraband.

“We appreciate Commissioner Lina’s clarification before the Senate and the public at large that the OFWs were never a target, and that he would like to see more protection and benefits for our overseas workers in the proposed law,” John Bertiz, OFW coalition spokesman said.

In the Ople Center’s position paper, the civil society group noted that no prior consultations were made by the BoC regarding its abrupt move to undertake random checks on balikbayan boxes.

It also stressed the need for a public apology given that the BoC linked by association the smuggling of drugs and firearms to balikbayan boxes sent home by legitimate OFWs.

An OFW from Saudi Arabia, Mel Laynesa, in response to a question raised by Senator Bongbong Marcos, said that an OFW in the Middle East would be charged with terrorism which is punishable with death if found to be in possession of illegal firearms, or engaged in the smuggling of guns and ammunition.

“Based on the Senate hearing, no less than the head of the BoC’s intelligence unit declared that not a single balikbayan box sent by OFWs last year contained illegal contraband such as drugs and firearms. The OFW sector was also unaware and never consulted by the BoC on its move to charge higher fees to forwarding companies that may be passed on to balikbayan box senders, namely the OFWs. Given these premises, a public apology has been long in coming,” Ople said.

The OFW coalition composed of several groups including the Filipino Migrant Workers Group, the Ople Center, Philippine Migrants Rights Watch, OFW Family Party-List, United Filipino Seafarers, Pinoy Expat/OFW Blogger Awards, among other organizations, said that it would remain vigilant to ensure that commitments offered during the public hearing by members of the Senate committee on ways and means jointly with the labor committee as well as the Bureau of Customs shall be fulfilled.

Among such commitments were the passage of the long-delayed Customs Modernization and Tariff Act, creation of an OFW help desk within the BoC to entertain consumers’ complaints, and the inclusion of special provisions in the proposed law to favor higher exemptions and a more streamlined process for balikbayan boxes sent home by legitimate OFWs.

“We also requested for another meeting but this time with all stakeholders present to ensure greater policy coherence and operational clarity particularly since the Christmas season which is the peak season for balikbayan boxes, is fast approaching.” ###