Balikbayan box and the BoC’s barya mentality

We really like the way Pasig City Rep. Roman Romulo described the Bureau of Customs’ infuriating directive to go after balikbayan boxes—“nickel-and-diming” it. Barya-barya, in short, reflective of the kind of mentality that seems to be pervasive in this administration to go after the small fish because they can’t (or won’t) go after the big fish.

What a poor excuse from Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina— yes, he of logistics company Air21 from which he claims to have divested his interests—to say that the BOC is after smugglers to rationalize the random opening of padala boxes. Random—meaning it could be anybody’s box—so whatever happened to all that intelligence fund that’s supposed to help them pinpoint those smugglers that they are supposed to be running after? Sure, the Customs bureau may have the mandate to open the boxes and inspect the contents, but the problem is that the government agency has a very big credibility and integrity problem, so much so that people are now calling it the “Bureau of Custong.”

Who hasn’t’ heard these exasperating stories about missing items from the balikbayan boxes? They may “just” be chocolates, a pair of shoes, bars of Ivory or Irish spring soap or maybe some cans of Spam, but every item inside that box represents the sweat and tears and sacrifice of overseas Filipino workers who deprive themselves just so they have something to send to their families here. At least Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz seems to understand what that balikbayan box means to Filipinos, and how it has become part of our culture and tradition to send (or receive) the box of padalas. Just the effort of saving up for the items, painstakingly wrapping and labeling each one to make sure it goes to the intended recipient, carefully packing them in – the box and everything in it represents the love, the sacrifice, the goodwill and the desire to share what little these OFWs have. Baldoz is right, why would Filipinos put their families at risk by sending smuggled or contraband items through the balikbayan box? 

But it’s not only the opening of boxes that are making people furious, but also the plan to tax those with values exceeding $500. Can’t blame people if they see this as another “fundraising” scheme of the administration—with the Christmas season just round the corner  (‘ber months are coming), there will be an influx of balikbayan boxes so imagine the windfall from the added taxes. (“What, the P450 charged for still non-existent new plates for old vehicles not enough?” one of our sourpuss buddies quipped.) Which reminds us, wasn’t that the reason why John “Sunny” Sevilla resigned as Customs chief ­—because he refused to take part in the fundraising scheme reportedly of the Liberal Party though the BOC?

Even with the reactive directive of President BS Aquino for the Department of Finance and the BoC to stop the random and arbitrary physical inspection of the boxes, this balikbayan box fiasco could potentially backfire on this administration with OFWs and their relatives getting ready for payback time in May 2016. Just imagine, there are about 12 million OFWs and even if not everyone will be able to take advantage of absentee voting, they have immediate family members and relatives scattered all over the country who have the voting power.

As noted by John Bertiz, president of a coalition of overseas Filipino workers groups and advocates (whose members include the Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute, the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch, the Pinoy Expats/OFW Blog Awards Inc., Patnubay Group, LBS Recruitment Solutions Inc., the Global Asia Alliance Consultants Inc., United Filipino Seafarers, Filipino Migrant Workers, OFW Family Partylist, Center for Migrants Advocacy, Kabalikat ng Migranteng Pilipino Inc., Kapisanan ng mga Kamag-anak ng Migranteng Manggagawang Pilipino Inc. and Federation of Associations of Manpower Exporters), “Our OFWs are not looking for special treatment. All they ask is for the government to treat them with respect and dignity. The BOC balikbayan box fiasco shows that our public officials also have much to learn from and about our OFWs.” 

This latest debacle clearly demonstrates once again how clueless and how disconnected this administration is from the sentiments, the plight and the situation of ordinary Filipinos. Traffic is not fatal, riding the MRT is a matter of choice and we’re still alive, so what the heck are we complaining about, right?

Rep. Romulo says “it is embarrassing for government to resort to a nickel-and-dime operation targeting our OFWs, ostensibly to fight smuggling, when in truth we have countless well-entrenched smugglers—of rice, fuel, sugar, pork, cigarettes, liquor and so on—roaming free.” But why expect any sense of shame from a government that thinks it has a monopoly on the so-called straight path?


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