A recent order by the Bureau of Customs increasing duties for balikbayan boxes and subjecting them to physical inspection has sparked outrage among Filipino migrant worker communities around the globe and their families back in the Philippines. Balikbayan boxes are packages containing consumer goods and other items sent by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to relatives back home.
Many OFWs expressed their disgust through social media. The Twitter hashtag #HandsOffOurBalikbayanBoxes was used in the past week to pressure the government to recall its order. The campaign succeeded after President Benigno Aquino III instructed the bureau on August 24 to screen the boxes through X-ray.
The balikbayan box is an important symbol of the Filipino migrant labor phenomenon. Through the box, OFWs are able to give their families a taste of life abroad. An estimated 10 to 12 million Filipinos are working or living in other countries.
The Bureau of Customs said the order aims to increase tax collection and to curb illegal smuggling. The agency blamed a loss of 600 million pesos (12.8 million US dollars) annually from non-declared goods that are said to be smuggled in the country through balikbayan boxes. Furthermore, the agency reported that some unscrupulous traders have used the balikbayan box to smuggle goods and contraband into the country.
But the announcement that balikbayan boxes would be opened by customs officials for inspection drew the ire of OFWs and the public for two main reasons: first, the Bureau of Customs is perceived as a corrupt agency; and second, many felt upset that the government is treating OFWs as smugglers and tax evaders. OFWs are popularly called the country’s modern heroes for keeping the economy afloat.
Blogger and newspaper columnist Tonyo Cruz explains the anger expressed by OFWs:
It beggars the mind that Customs and Malacañang are implying that OFWs are out to cheat government of customs duties and taxes through their balikbayan boxes. Not only is it crazy, but it betrays the government’s total lack of knowledge and empathy on the plight of OFWs everywhere, how much they usually earn, why they flee the country in the first place and the challenges they face abroad.
Ask a domestic helper in Hong Kong, a nurse in the United Kingdom, a construction worker in the Middle East, or a teacher in the U.S. They had to leave the country to find work for themselves and for families back home — while at the same time face rising anti-migrant measures and dwindling job prospects wherever they work. Tax evasion is not in their minds. The implied accusation that they are out to cheat government is an insult they can never forgive and forget.
Sociologist Arnold Alamon explains further the public backlash:
You see, dear government, these boxes mean more than the uncollected revenue that should go into public coffers which you will also steal anyway. These are the private symbols of the hardships and sacrifices of dignified Filipinos who would rather work abroad than wait for things to turn around here under one bungling administration after another. The backlash is searing and fiercely emotional and it places into serious question the already little trust people have for government.
An online petition against the customs directive has reached over 87,000 signatures in less than a week. Migrant activists have organized protests against the bureau. They have also called for a “Zero Remittance Day” on August 28. Progressive legislators have meanwhile filed a resolution to investigate the Bureau of Customs for the balikbayan box issue.
Below are some tweets and Internet memes that supported the campaign against the BOC policy.
dear bureau of customs the OFWs go through blood, sweat, fatigue, sickness before making one #balikbayanbox. don't intrude on what's not yours!
— Yukito Yamamoto (@yukito16) August 22, 2015
You'd like to make money even out of the #OFW #BalikBayanBox? How thick-faced! @CustomsPH #BureauOfCustoms
Customs will now tax Filipino pasalubongs from abroad– like shampoo and chocolates– while it allows toxic garbage in. — Luis V. Teodoro (@luisteodoro) August 23, 2015
In the tweet above, pasalubong means gift. The tweet refers to the Canadian trash issue where large amounts of trash from Canada were allowed entry in Philippine ports.
As public indignation reached a boiling point, President Aquino, who earlier urged the public to simply let the customs do its job, recalled the random inspection policy. He also directed the bureau to ensure the presence of representatives from stakeholders when a balikbayan box needs to be inspected by customs officials.
Activists see this as an initial victory. But the struggle for migrant workers’ rights continues.