By the third week of May, one-third of the legal, law-abiding and tax-compliant Pogos (Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators) will have finished physically retrofitting and refurbishing their call centers, dusting their computers and training their mostly Mandarin-speaking personnel on the stringent health rules to be observed under the "new normal."
It has been a long and hard uphill struggle for the Pogo workers in town. After all, they have been stranded here just like the rest of us, unable to move about or go out because of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) that is way into the eighth week. Being foreigners, these workers have the additional disadvantage of being naturally discriminated against, especially by their neighbors in posh condominiums.
So after a couple of weeks of preparation, the POGOs, or at least those who pay their taxes and follow health protocols, are ready to go.
The last few days saw the critics of this "industry" shift their diatribes to high gear, go on an offensive. First, they assailed the government's inclusion of POGOs in the category of business process outsourcing (BPO), an industry sector that is allowed to partially operate under the enhanced community quarantine. Even the association of call center bosses and agents came out with a statement disowning the POGOs, saying they are not BPOs, as if they alone can define what business outsourcing is.
Of course POGOs are not under PEZA, as some call centers are, because they are under the control and supervision of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor). As explained by Pagcor Chairman Andrea Dominguez, call center agents under POGO have a one-to-one correspondence with bettors in China, Malaysia and other areas. They have to speak Mandarin to be well understood, have to understand the culture, biases and thinking of the customers, very much like the regular call center agents. They engage in marketing and servicing bettors/customers which even Mandarin-speaking Filipino computer experts cannot hope to do well.
At this time of the costly war against the SARS Cov-2, the scientific name of the coronavirus 2019 that causes the dread disease COVID-19, pandemic, Pagcor's contribution of P26.5 billion for the effort is huge. Before the epidemic, the state gaming regulator has also been one of the biggest contributors to the National Treasury and other mandated beneficiaries, one of which is the funding for the Universal Health Care Law.
In money terms, Pagcor can be cited for increasing its revenues exponentially, both from regular casino operations and from the offshore internet gaming.
Domingo said from P73.72 million in 2016, revenues from POGO significantly increased to P5.73 billion in 2019. In the first quarter of 2020, POGOs already contributed P1.80 billion in regulatory fees alone. Further, from 2016 to March 2020, PAGCOR has already collected a total of P20.83 billion from POGOs in regulatory and other related fees.
POGO's contribution to the economy does not negate, however, the various issues raised by its critics, among them Senators Risa Hontiveros, Franklin Drilon, Joel Villanueva, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, House Minority Leader Rep. Benny Abante of Manila, Ted Failon, and even Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Their complaints center on alleged crimes such as street violence, kidnapping, money laundering and prostitution that are associated with POGO. Don't get me wrong about this, but it is well to point out that these crimes had been with us in Metro Manila and in other urban areas long before POGO came into the picture. These are problems of law enforcement, and although sometimes made serious by our Chinese guests, they remain solvable and within the ambit of peace and order which the police and others are well equipped to tackle.
In allowing the reopening of POGO, the government even assured that operators will abide by strict health and safety protocols such as physical distancing for their employees, and they will update and pay all previous tax liabilities.
So let the Senate and the House of Representatives investigate the alleged rise in crime and other social ills the critics have blamed on POGOs, to further enlighten the public about this newest branch of the BPO industry.
After this probe, Congress may be able to come up with recommendations to the Executive branch on how best to adopt a rational, official policy on POGOs.