ALPSIDE DOWNED: The Box Of Our Tears

BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 09 March) — March 31 this year should be a red-letter day for OFWs. That’s the day when the Philippine customs ends its suspension of the revised rules on the sending of our balikbayan boxes.

The new set of rules — Customs Administrative Order (CAO) 05-2016 — took effect last August 1, 2017, but following flak from several sectors over its implementation, Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapena suspended its implementation until end of March.

At the heart of the protest are the tedious procedures for sending balikbayan boxes. Three copies per box are needed for the Information forms that will detail the contents of each box. Everything inside, even second-hand items, must be declared, including their value and quantity. New items need to have receipts to certify their value. OFW senders must also provide a photocopy of their passport to certify citizenship.

Why all the scrutiny over the boxes? To recall, the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act or CMTA (Republic Act No. 10863) was signed into law in May 2016. The CMTA increased the ceiling on the value of tax-free personal items sent via balikbayan boxes to PhP150,000 and also raised the de minimis value of goods subjected to duties to PhP10,000. The new rules were designed to make sure that this privilege was not abused by OFWs and to stop smuggling in boxes of items in commercial quantities for business use, according to then Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon.

Faeldon is gone, but Lapena will now be tested for his will to implement these new rules.

The ordinary OFW box sender in Switzerland, however, will always see the rules as foolish. Mainly because it is difficult to quantify the value of items in the boxes we send. Except for the very few, anything new that we send is invariably bought during sale season, when prices could drop up to 70 percent of original price. “Why send one item, when I can send two or more of the same items at sale price?” is the OFW logic.

Used or second-hand items, meanwhile, can come from so many sources: from hand-me-downs of the family; from the Brocki or the neighborhood second-hand shop; from the cast-aways or from unused gifts of employers or friends; even from functional and still usable items that are occasionally given away gratis on the street by anonymous donors (who save themselves the hassle of hauling these items to the designated recycling places). What is common is that it is difficult to quantify second hand items, much less to obtain receipts for them.

Faeldon said that values can be “approximated” for second-hand items. But come on now. Only non-senders do not know that balikbayan boxes are not filled in a day; we lovingly put in items one at a time according to sale season, luck or discretion — until the box or more are finally filled and then ready for shipment. Who can still remember what item cost how much from which season’s sale? And which OFW lovingly keeps his pasalubong gifts all itemized and priced accordingly?

But OFWs do not just sweat the small stuff; we also try to look at the big picture.

These new regulations are said to be part of Customs standardization the world over; it is just the Philippines levelling up to world standards. And the stringent rules were ostensibly meant to stop the smuggling of contraband like drugs, cigarettes or alcohol or firearms and ammunition, while also limiting the smuggling of personal items in commercial quantities for personal or business profit.

Government was losing money by removing customs duties on personal goods sent home by overseas Filipino workers, and losing more by raising last year the ceiling on the value of these tax-free goods. The good citizen then, according to Faeldon, must not abuse the tax-free privilege in order to minimize the loss of potential government revenue. The agency said it would be foregoing PhP75 billion a year in revenue from this new scheme.

What is not clear however, is the bulk of contraband or personal items that OFWs smuggle in through their balikbayan boxes, say in a year. Customs has not said exactly how much government loses through smuggling in our boxes.

OFWs are thinking: Is the value of illegal items seized then from OFW boxes greater or bigger than the, say, 600 kilos of shabu (estimated worth: P 6.4 billion) that were smuggled last year under the noses of Customs people? Is it justified for us – the much-abused modern-day heroes — to be inconvenienced by these unnecessary demands simply because smuggling and corruption continues in the customs bureau?

Our united answer is no. Hence the protests that erupted when the scheme was started in August last year, and which uproar led commissioner Lapena to suspend the new rules implementation in October during the holiday season.

But the battle continues, and the new rules implementation – already delayed on two occasions over the uproar and general confusion — will again face the test this year.

The protesters still maintain that Customs should be going after big-time smugglers instead of picking on the balikbayan boxes.

And, I think, herein lies Custom’s weakness: because they cannot gauge exactly the value and worth of the balikbayan boxes to overseas Filipinos. What to Customs are a potential source of government revenue, are the symbols of the Filipino’s love for family. And that is essentially why we are saying government should keep off our boxes. Because we are already paying the price of being away from family and country, and do not want any more unnecessary interferences in showing our love and loyalty to family.

A similar furor in the past buttresses this point. In 2015, OFWs also opposed a customs directive on their balikbayan boxes. The agency ordered random inspection of balibayan boxes to check for smuggled goods which were identified as “undervalued items” and “undeclared contents.” OFWs sent a petition to stop the opening of balikbayan boxes or packages they send back to the country. Customs relented by saying that only those suspected boxes would be subject to closer inspection or forced opening.

(Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their thoughts about their home country and their experiences in their adopted countries. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He  is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps)