Boxing the bureau

The Bureau of Customs’ plan to randomly open balikbayan boxes and inspect their contents was greeted with a world-shaking chorus of anger from overseas Filipinos, who have used the balikbayan box system for decades to send goods to their families in the Philippines.

Instead of the bureau finding ways to be proactive on behalf of migrant workers in this matter, the agency planned to implement a heavy-handed inspection plan. Their rationale was that they have to implement existing laws and control abuse of the system by illegal traders.              

However, in trying to sweep the illegals in a net, they also riled the legitimate senders who wanted nothing more than to show their love and concern to their families, and who felt harassed by the BoC move, which they felt would result in more instances of petty theft and violations of privacy by Customs personnel.

The public outcry on social media also led to a deluge of humorous online memes showing boxes full of snakes to bite Customs probers, and boxes with the contents taped on the outside to make inspections easier.

Some called for outright boycotts of the padala system “until it is fixed.”

This resulted in a flurry of reactions from the BoC, Department of Justice, the Department of Finance, the Palace, and the President. After the dust settled, at least one thing was clear—the President ordered that the implementation of random inspections be halted.

This turnaround was entirely due, I believe, to the fact that this issue stormed the Internet, making it too large and visible for government to ignore.

This is the power of social media—it acts as an amplifier for the voice of the people to be heard, who would otherwise have had to lapse into silence.

A simple communication model goes like this: the message emanates from a source and goes along a channel to the receiver, who then sends feedback about the message back to the source.

Before the Internet, opportunities to deliver feedback were few and limited to those who had control over the mass media, or other types of influence that would lead to results. Ordinary folk could but write letters or stage rallies and protests —methods that are inefficient, time-consuming, and resource-intensive.

Digital media democratized public discourse, allowing everyone with an opinion to state it easily, cheaply, and immediately. The response time of those on the receiving end has necessarily and as a consequence become faster.

Therefore the resolution of this matter took a mere few days, similar to the swift dissemination of Transport Secretary Jun Abaya’s public apology for his “traffic is not fatal” remark.

The BoC reassessed its approach to the issue, with Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina saying they would “seek the help of our freight forwarder companies to install their own x-ray machines in their warehouses” and acquire “K9 units and additional CCTV cameras for our ports” to conduct inspections without opening boxes.

Many overseas Filipinos also object to the taxation on the contents of boxes and the limitation on the number of items allowed.

Lawyer Raymond Fortun posted a legal opinion entitled “To Open Or Not to Open” on his Facebook page last Aug. 24, saying that while “taxation is an inherent power of the state,” the balikbayan box system is a “privilege was in the first place granted to somehow reward Filipino workers working abroad, who have helped bring in much-needed foreign currencies into the country even as they suffer hardship in a foreign land.”

Overseas workers contribute billions to the Philippine economy. From a Chicago Tribune article posted online on Aug. 24:   “ Money sent home by Filipinos living aboard, which makes up about 10 percent of GDP, increased 5.6 percent to $12.1 billion in the first half from a year earlier.”

Many items sent in balik-bayan boxes are hand-me-downs, cast-offs, second-hand items, that if taxed would cost more than the actual price of the goods when new.

The BoC should also rethink the limit on items. Some overseas Filipinos send a large number of cheap nonperishable goods—toothpaste, shampoo, soap—for their families to use over the course of a year, with no intent to make money off them.

With public clamor at a high level, the BoC would do well to address these issues as soon as possible.

For now, and with regard to the random inspections at least, the public is victorious. The resolution of this incident is a triumph of communication, the will of the people, and the power of the word.

The people have through these means succeeded in putting this insensitive plan of Customs back in the box—at least for the meantime.


Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember, Blog:

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