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Airport hostage-taking

I don’t know how such a simple scam could have been perpetrated for decades right under our noses. But the racket that allows the Bureau of Immigration to collect huge sums at airports and to disburse these as they please, while threatening to hold the public hostage, has got to end —quickly and for good.

Right now, the hostage situation at the country’s airports —especially high-traffic facilities like Manila and other major points of entry—is reaching crisis proportions. Airlines are already asking passengers to get to the airport five hours before posted boarding times, in order to make their flights because of the long lines at immigration counters.

How did things get so bad so quickly? Why can’t we have enough people to process passengers, something that’s as simple as hiring people for perfectly decent jobs in a country where millions are unemployed?

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, who has decided to take on the racketeers at Immigration, is convinced he knows why: Those making a pile out of the anomalous status quo are pushing back in the face of a concerted effort to finally end their long-running extortionist scheme.

Diokno explained that the Duterte administration has decided to end the practice of hiring temporary “job order” immigration workers who are allowed to charge up to five times their basic pay, which starts at P16,000, as overtime. Now, anyone who’s worked in the formal sector of the economy knows you can’t rack up that much overtime even if you work for 24 hours straight and never sleep for an entire day for the rest of your life.

It’s just not possible. But the scam artists at the immigration bureau have always been able to get away with what they’re doing because they are somehow allowed to retain the fees they charge through “express lanes” at the airport.

Over the years, immigration officials have collected billions from the fees they charge passengers who want to use the booths in front of these express lanes. And by bureaucratic legerdemain, they have never remitted these collected fees to the national treasury, justifying their use within the agency to pay for overtime and other “necessary” expenses for their operations.

Efforts of all governments since the Cory Aquino administration, during which the practice started, have never been able to stop it. The last government prior to that of President Rodrigo Duterte to attempt to end the job order-express lane racket was Noynoy Aquino’s, whose officials tried for consecutive years to give the temporary workers regular employment contracts, which would give them full benefits as state employees—but which would also cap their overtime, like in any other sane agency, to 50 percent of their basic pay.

But because the fat cats at immigration always seem to be able to scare the government that ending the JO scheme and doing away with the express lane fees would cripple the airports, they have always been able to convince Congress to insert provisions in the national budget continuing the practice.

Noynoy’s supposed reformist government failed. Until Diokno stepped in and Duterte allowed him free rein to stop the scam.

Now the immigration workers are engaged in an open staredown with the government, going on mass leaves and abandoning their posts to retain their huge and irregular benefits while sacrificing the convenience of the plane-riding public. Duterte’s administration, if it really wants change, cannot back away from this fight and should not allow the hostage-takers to win.

* * *

Diokno spotted the congressional insertion of the immigration fee charges in the proposed national budget in November. When the budget was presented to Duterte, the budget chief convinced the president to veto it, in favor of a plan to create 900 new permanent immigration positions in the agency’s plantilla to solve the practice of giving them unreal overtime.

By January, Diokno was sitting down with immigration workers, whom he believed he had convinced to accept full-benefit regular employment in the bureau; change seemed to be forthcoming. Then the mass leaves of the JO workers, egged on by bureau officials in charge of the express lane collections, started just as the vacation season began this month.

The workers and their leaders have gone to the media to claim that they will be hurt by becoming regular workers subject to the Salary Standardization Law. They protest that the processing of passengers is a stressful, critical job that makes them deserve almost P50,000 in overtime pay a month—never mind if these days, with computerization, a lot of the subjective, on-the-spot decision making at the point of entry has really been taken away from immigration officers.

They insist that they should be allowed to keep their express lane funds to pay for overtime, even if they already work in three shifts that really prevents them from pulling more than the required eight-hour limit for being on the job. They say that the lack of free parking and public utility routes for them at the airport terminals, plus the lack of cheap, decent food, is making their life a living hell.

But Duterte and Diokno should not give in to these whiners, who are crying all the way to the bank while their fellow state workers toil for a fraction of what they get in abysmal conditions. The entire country and the millions of tourists and overseas Filipino workers, who have long been oppressed by these scalawags at Immigration, will be watching.

Topics: Jojo Robles , Airport hostage-taking , Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno , Bureau of Immigration , Noynoy Aquino
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