Senators seek POGO ban amid kidnapping spate

By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES should ban offshore gaming operators in the country because it has spun a fresh spate of kidnappings involving mostly Chinese nationals, a senator said on Monday.

“The continued operation of Philippine offshore gamine operators (POGO) in the country is dangerous,” Senator Aquilino Martin D. Pimentel III said in a statement. “It is akin to harboring would-be criminals and gangsters that can eventually cause massive disruption of peace and order in the country.”

Calls to ban POGOs, which proliferated during the term of ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte, snowballed amid a spate of abductions victimizing mostly Chinese nationals.

Many of the kidnappings being probed by local police involved foreign nationals working in this sector, Interior Secretary Benjamin “Benhur” Abalos said last week.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. had not made up his mind about the proposed ban, his sister Senator María Imelda “Imee” R. Marcos said at the weekend.

She told DZBB radio on Sunday she had told the president that since authorities could not regulate POGOs, it might be better to shut them down.

“The amount that we earn from that is very little. My guess is that the income obtained under the table is bigger than what is given to the government,” she added.

The senator said the income from POGOs, most of which are Chinese companies that operate online gambling overseas, might not be worth the trouble.

A law taxing these operators took effect in October last year. The government collected P1.22 billion from licensees, service providers and employees at the end of last year.

Tax collections from POGOs hit P2.38 billion in 2018, P6.4 billion in 2019 and P7.18 billion in 2020, according to the Department of Finance.

“We must weigh the social costs of POGOs vis a vis the meager income they give to the national coffers of only P3 billion a year,” Senate President Juan Miguel F. Zubiri told reporters in a Viber message.

“Plus, they do not employ Filipinos so there is no added benefit to our local labor force,” he said. “The question is, is it worth it?”

The Senate would probably tackle this when the blue ribbon committee comes out with a report on its investigation of rising kidnapping incidents in the country, Mr. Zubiri said.

“It has become clear from the most recent Senate hearing that the social costs of POGOs are starting to outweigh whatever economic gains that this particularly pernicious industry is bringing in the country,” said Senator Mary Grace S. Poe-Llamanzares, who earlier filed a resolution to probe the abductions.

She noted that in the past, issues with POGOs have advanced to kidnapping, prostitution, torture and even murder from just tax evasion, mass migration and the real estate bubble.

“It’s like POGO as a mother vice gives birth to a whole slew of other vices and crimes,” she said.

The Philippines has become a cradle for Chinese gangsters after Vietnam and Cambodia banned Chinese-backed online gambling and overseas casinos, she added, citing local police.

“We should launch a full-on probe on the social costs of POGOs and evaluate whether the country can still accommodate their operations and, if yes, at what cost,” she added.

Mr. Pimentel said the ban should be a legislative priority. “Given what we’re seeing now as numerous ill effects of POGOs, Congress has the moral duty to ban POGOs. We should act now. It will be a bipartisan measure.”

“We can’t afford to dilly-dally on banning POGOs when the nation’s moral fiber and peace and order are on the line,” he added. “You are the majority. Get your act together. If you say ‘Stop POGOs,’ we will support you.”

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