The Blas F. Ople Policy Center, a non-profit organization that specializes in labor migration issues, called for a comprehensive review of Memorandum Circular No. 7990 issued by the Bureau of Customs in 1990 that sets guidelines on the use of balikbayan boxes by overseas Filipinos.
Susan Ople, the center’s founding president, noted that costs of goods here and abroad have since gone up, and overseas Filipino workers normally shop for commodities that are affordable yet relevant to the needs of family members. The US$500 per balikbayan box was determined in 1990, 25 years ago when the foreign currency rates were much different, and costs of goods were not as high.
“We welcome the direction set by President Aquino in relation to balikbayan boxes, but with that guidance comes a distinct responsibility for continuing reforms by the BoC but this time in partnership with all stakeholders,” Ople said.
Specifically, the labor advocate noted that there may be a need to look at how the Bureau of Customs valuation system works, considering that some items found in OFW balikbayan boxes were used gadgets, clothing and other articles provided for by their foreign employers. “When does an OFW cross the line in sending food and other items home, from household consumption to commercial use? Very clear guidance must be set in keeping with the times because contrary to the perception created by this fiasco, the great majority of OFWs keep to the limit and are very honest with their declarations.”
“We look forward to the dialogue with Bureau of Customs officials on Monday so that we can clarify some unresolved issues and come up with a clearer process flow in relation to the integrity of balikbayan boxes,” Ople said.
The former labor undersecretary said she hopes the BoC would take advantage of the dialogue to brief various OFW groups and advocates about previous cases involving smuggling via balikbayan boxes. “Certainly our modern-day heroes would not tolerate such syndicated crime because their own families may fall prey to illegal substances smuggled through balikbayan boxes.”
Ople said the onus now rests with the Bureau of Customs in filing charges against unscrupulous companies that insert smuggled goods in balikbayan box shipments. The BoC should also inform the OFW sector about the names of these companies, and the modus operandi that they employ.
However, she stressed the need for the BoC to be always fair and circumspect in its statements and desist from linking drug and firearms smuggling with legitimate migrant workers. “The BoC failed to lay down the proper predicate for its actions regarding balikbayan boxes of OFWs. At the onset, the Customs chief should have been very emphatic and clear in stating that the real targets were erring freight forwarders, and not the OFWs themselves. Certainly, we do not want the global community to associate smuggling of contraband with the otherwise positive image of Filipino overseas workers.”