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Sunday, December 10, 2023

3 senators push for gradual POGO phaseout

Three senators who signed the committee report seeking a total ban on Philippine Overseas Gaming Operators (POGOs) said they will withdraw their signatures if the phaseout is abrupt.

Senators Ronald dela Rosa, JV Ejercito and Raffy Tulfo said the stop to POGO operations should be gradual, citing its negative impact on government revenues and employment.

They asserted the outright ban should apply only to illegal POGOs while legally operating POGOs should be afforded sufficient time for the phaseout.

Dela Rosa said one to two years should be enough, while Ejercito said the phaseout should be carried out over two to three years, giving them enough time to adjust since they invested in their operations here.

Ejercito said he had talked with Dela Rosa and Tulfo.

“We don’t like an abrupt or outright cancellation,” Ejercito said.

The three senators signed the report of the ways and means committee calling for a total ban on POGO operations but said they wanted to introduce amendments.

Dela Rosa, who chairs the Senate committee on public order and illegal drugs, conducted a separate probe on POGO-related crimes.

He admitted having reservations about signing the report, and said he would raise his points during the period of interpellation, because Gatchalian was for an outright ban.

The former police chief noted there are two committee reports on POGOs —the first one released by Gatchalian on social costs of POGOs and the second will be released by him. His report is just being routed for signature, he added.

The three senators said they would leave it up to the executive branch, which has the final say on POGOs.

Gatchalian’s report asked the Labor department to find jobs for those who will lose their employment with the shutdown of POGOs.

Despite the reservations by the three senators, Gatchalian said the call for an immediate ban on POGOs was gaining ground.

Gatchalian, who has long been pushing for the ban, expressed confidence that it will happen soon.

Gatchalian on Sunday cited the opinion of former Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon in support of his committee report.

“It’s worth noting that Drilon has consistently advocated for the expulsion of POGOs, asserting that the country is being exploited by organized crime syndicates for money laundering through POGO operations,” he said in a news release on Sunday.

As early as March 2020, he said Drilon had urged the government to re-examine its policy of allowing POGO operations, noting then that the influx of foreign cash brought to the country was tied to POGO operations.

Just recently, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan said he would recommend to President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. the permanent ban of POGOs, emphasizing that “the social costs are quite high” compared to the revenues generated by the government from the industry.

“I believe that everyone in government will eventually take a stand against POGOs because it’s an effective crime prevention strategy that would provide a safe and secure environment as we aim for sustained economic development,” Gatchalian said.

The recommendation made by the Senate committee on ways and means, headed by Gatchalian, will be taken up in plenary within the week.

“I am confident that my colleagues in the Senate will support the POGO ban to sustain the development of the country,” he said in Filipino.

Gatchalian earlier said President Marcos already expressed concern about the proliferation of crimes associated with POGOs.

He said the President even urged him to continue keeping an eye on the industry.

Aside from money laundering activities, crimes attributed to the POGO industry have expanded exponentially over the past several years and now include human trafficking, forcible abduction, homicide, illegal detention, kidnapping-for-ransom, theft, robbery-extortion, serious physical injuries, swindling, grave coercion, investment scams, cryptocurrency scams, and love scams.

Data from the Philippine National Police show that from Jan. 1, 2017 to June 30, 2023, there were 103 POGO-related crimes.

Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno said it was his personal position that POGOs should just leave the country.

“My position is ‘go.’ I can’t speak for the economic team, but that is my [personal] position,” he said, citing the administrative, social and reputational costs of keeping them in the country.

“If they want to leave in three months, that is fine. I don’t have a recommendation on phasing [them] out. I just want them to go,” Diokno said.

Diokno said banning the POGOs will also mean that foreign players would not be allowed to enter the country.

“They should not be given a visa. Plus, we can say that banks should not deal with these people,” he said, citing anti-money laundering issues.

Earlier, members of the Senate committee on ways and means signed a committee report recommending that the government kick out POGOs.

Among those who signed the report were Gatchalian,Dela Rosa, Risa Hontiveros, Pia Cayetano, Grace Poe, Tulfo, Ejercito, Loren Legarda, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel, Senate President Pro Tempore Loren Legarda, and Majority Leader Joel Villanueva.

Those who did not sign the committee report were Senators Cynthia and Mark Villar, Christopher Go, Francis Tolentino, Juan Edgardo Angara, Jinggoy Estrada, Francis Escudero, and Lito Lapid.

The committee report called for the adoption of a resolution urging the executive department to cease the operations of POGOs within three months from the approval of the committee report.

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