Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez on Sunday warned resource persons they could be set to jail for lying to the House committee on agriculture and foods as it resumes its hearings on the spikes in the prices of onions and other agricultural goods.
Romualdez said the panel is determined to unmask the unscrupulous financiers and traders behind the onion and vegetable cartel responsible for the high prices.
He said they have demonstrated their resolve by citing in contempt and detaining three officials of Argo International Forwarders Inc. for refusing to cooperate with the congressional investigation.
Quezon Rep. Mark Enverga, the committee chairperson, said the citation for contempt was lifted after the three assured the panel that they would cooperate and submit documents to help establish the price manipulation of onion and provide leads to the identity of the cartel’s leaders.
“I cannot stress enough for these resource persons the importance of cooperating with the committee: lie to lawmakers and you will all find yourselves in jail,” Romualdez said, adding the committee’s mission is to reduce the prices of onions and dismantle the vegetable cartel.
“We need to lower the prices of onions and decimate the cartel at the soonest possible time. And I guarantee the imprisonment of those exploitative and abusive individuals and business owners behind the cartel. Our constituents need an immediate reprieve from the high prices of agricultural goods,” he said.
He also issued a stern warning against government officials and other personnel who are in connivance with the onion cartel.
“The committee will not spare anyone who helped these unscrupulous individuals, even those from the government. You are equally guilty of causing the suffering of the Filipino people,” he said.
Meanwhile, Senator Cynthia Villar said price manipulators of agricultural products will be sent to jail.
In a report by the Senate committee on agriculture which she chairs, Villar cited the need for a watchdog in the agricultural sector to ensure that whoever manipulates the price of agricultural commodities to the detriment of the small farmers and consumers will be brought to justice.
“Gone are the days when we are always at the mercy of these cartels,” she said.
To address this concern, she has pushed for the creation of an Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Task Force and an Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Court.
Villar said the task force will run after violators while a special court will specifically try and hear economic sabotage cases with a special team of prosecutors.
A special court, she said, will give the task force the muscle to bring smugglers, profiteers and hoarders to justice and ensure preferential attention to cases of economic sabotage.
As for importation, Villar said they proposed to approve importation permits “logically scheduled” so as not to impede and compete with local production and harvest.
“The import volume must be correctly established and such must be only for purposes of providing the needed supply in the market, she added. “We no longer want to see onions being thrown due to their low price.”
She filed Senate Bill No. 1962 to amend Republic Act 10845 and Senate Bill No. 1963 or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Courts Act of 2023. She then presented to the Senate plenary the committee report after hearings on the rising market prices of onions.
“The amendment should be explicit and will leave no room for the implementers to interpret the intent and spirit of the law otherwise through implementing rules and regulations,” Villar said.
Once enacted, this will protect not only the onion industry but also the entire agricultural sector, she said.
In a separate development, the Bureau of Customs (BOC) said it has seized P120 million worth of suspected smuggled poultry and seafood products following a series of raids of seven warehouses or cold storage facilities on Friday.
Customs Commissioner Bienvenido Rubio gave credit to the Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service at the Manila International Container Port (CISS-MICP) led by its chief, Alvin Enciso, for the seizures.
“This is outstanding work by our law enforcement officers and our bureau personnel. I understand how much effort and commitment it takes to inspect all of these warehouses in just one day. It also goes to show how important proper coordination is among government agencies because these operations won’t be possible without it,” Rubio said.
Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence Group Juvymax Uy also underscored how border protection stopped the economic impact of smuggled products entering into Philippine markets.
While most of the frozen seafood were from China, there was also beef from Brazil and Australia, pork from the United States, and pork ears from Russia.
They also found an empty warehouse that was to serve as a cold storage facility.