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The Balik-Bayan Boxes Saga

Since early 80’s, the popular demand for Filipino workers abroad became too “uso” for almost every filipino household. Fathers aspired for skilled work in Saudi Arabia while Moms hoped for a greener pasteur in HongKong as domestic helpers. Some of them was lucky enough to migrate to United States with their families.

People labeled the Overseas Filipino Workers as “mayaman” without understanding the price of being one. I was also one of those people who thought about being abroad is always a bed of roses. That’s because of the “dollar income” mentality. When I personally experienced the OFW life, that’s when I realized that earning those dollars is not as easy as picking fruits from a tree.

I somehow grew up without my Dad because he was one of those “Tatays” who tried their luck in Saudi Arabia. I can only recall some memories with him when I was small. He was home for Holidays or not at all. I remember my Mom tagging me along with her to the city from time to time. As an 8-year old girl, going to the city is the best part of my kid life. All I knew that time was, we received money from my Dad and I can spend some hours in the mall, eating hotdogs, popcorn and buy packs of stationeries and stuff for school.

The most unforgettable memory though were the times when Dad started sending us packages with goods from the Middle East. From soap to shampoos and even some home appliances. One day, my mom asked us to write a letter for our Dad. I was too excited because finally, I could tell him what I want him to buy for me for his Balik-Bayan Box.I remember asking for everything “Barbie”. Barbie’s kitchen, Barbie’s house, Barbie’s clothes, shoes, jewelries, etc. My siblings laughed at me because I was asking for nonsense. But for a child of 8, those things were the desires of my heart and the thought of opening those boxes with those toys inside made me jump for joy.

Balik-Bayan Box as we all know, is a fix-sized box or package sent by Filipinos from all over the world to their families back home. This is sort of a “pasalubong” or gifts which was personally packed and wrapped by them. This became more like a tradition to every Filipinos to strengthen family ties despite of the distance. I think, this is also one of the reasons why Filipinos started to love anything “imported”.

Imported goods then became an amplitude of one’s social status. The notion of having an “abroad” family member became an equivalent of being rich or “can afford”. Even if you’re using a cheap american brand shampoo, you are still richer than those who are just using a local brand (which is even more expensive if you think about it). If you’re eating a cheap corned beef with arabic letters on it which costs you $0.50 cents (20-25 pesos)/can, you are still richer than those who are eating a local brand which costs them 45 pesos/can. That is because what you have is “imported”.

Just recently, the Philippine Bureau of Customs declared that they must impose a strict and thorough inspection of every Balik-Bayan Box sent by OFWs. “Strict” means imposing taxes to undeclared goods inside the box. “Thorough” means opening and checking the goods inside the box one by one.

The reasons:

1. Protect the country from smuggled goods such as illegal drugs and unlicensed firearms.
2. Through spot check operations, BOC earlier discovered that traders use balikbayan boxes to ship smuggled goods into the country which were identified as “undervalued items” and “undeclared contents.”
3. Some Balikbayan boxes were discovered with goods in commercial quantity inside.

An uproar blasted out in social media after the news broke out. Majority of the Overseas Filipino Workers opposed to this BoC’s plan of desecrating their boxes. Upon hearing the news, I immediately read every articles from news sites and hover over public opinions about this. As a former OFW, I am somehow affected and angry at the same time because I was once a frequent Balik-Bayan Box sender for almost 9 years. On the other hand, I was kinda relieved that I am already home and was not caught up in these hullabaloos for I am not going to send a single package from abroad anymore.

I spent quite a lot of time on reading articles and even the law written on BOC’s official website. I learned that under the law, the Bureau must conduct a 100% examination of the consolidated shipment entering the country. 100% examination means the boxes must undergo a thorough inspection through X-Ray machines, K9 units sniffing inspections and yes, opening the boxes.

From ABS-CBN News:

The Customs chief noted that by definition, balikbayan boxes are packages brought by overseas Filipinos returning to the Philippines. On the other hand, "balikbayan boxes" sent by Filipinos who are not returning to the country should be considered "shopping boxes."

He said overseas Filipinos returning to the country are given tax exemptions for items with value of up to P10,000, based on a presidential decree issued by then President Ferdinand Marcos.

Every item sent via padala package is taxable, he added.

"[If you live abroad], you can bring anything but you will be taxed. There is no exemption. If you are a balikbayan with the intention of coming back to our country, with your passport and everything, like people who have studied abroad or returning OFWs, these are the only people given the privilege to bring in goods and that will not be taxed if the value of the goods is P10,000 and below," he said.

Lina said items sent via balikbayan box or padala package will need to be assessed for duties and value-added tax. He said Customs inspectors need to open the boxes to check the items unless there is a packing list and invoice attached to the box.

Overseas Filipinos can list the items and present it to a broker, which will present the list to Customs. Lina, however, noted that brokers and freight forwarders do not submit these lists to Customs "so they would not have to pay duties and taxes."

"The duty is 1 percent and VAT is 12 percent. The duty can go higher to 3 percent, 5 percent or 10 percent, depending on item that you are bringing into this country," he said.

He cited as an example overseas Filipinos sending flatscreen TVs to their loved ones, saying these items should still be taxed 12 percent plus an additional 1 percent duty.

"We are asking our kababayan to declare right away, when they send a shipment there. They should email it or they should prepare a manifest together with the invoice so that the broker or the forwarder can file it properly."

Even secondhand items such as bags or even a gift will need to be taxed.

"That is where the examiner will place a value. There is a secondhand value for Louis Vuitton bags here. That is the law, we have to follow the law," he said.

Lina warned that misdeclared items will be confiscated including microwave ovens, speakers and other household items. Items such as pornographic magazines will also be seized since these are banned.

He said confiscated items will be auctioned although the owner can still pay taxes "if that is really just a negligible thing."

"If you are not honest, we will go after you. The word is honesty, here. You have to declare," he said.

Ok. Honesty you say?

Then how can you explain these smuggled items such as rice, food and other prohibited goods which entered the country under your care? Aren’t they taxable? Aren’t they subject for thorough inspection too?

How can you honestly think that a domestic helper from HongKong could smuggle prohibited drugs or firearms into the country? And how in the world a worker from Saudi could send drugs through his box when it is punishable by death in the KSA to have such things? Do you even think these people would risk their lives by writing their names, addresses and mobile numbers on the box while shipping illegal drugs and firearms? That’s idiotic.

In my opinion, Mr. Lina’s words are pathetic and counterproductive. He demands honesty when in fact, the BOC was considered as the most corrupt agency of the Philippine government. The OFWs are not afraid of the spot inspection and opening of the boxes because they have nothing to hide. They are afraid that the thieves and shameless people from the BOC will steal the things that they personally bought, wrapped and packed for their love ones at home. Considering their (BOC) reputation, you cannot blame the OFWs to protest against the opening of their boxes. We truly understand that it is your job to implement the law but there are other ways to do it.

1. Invest in advance/modern X-Ray machines which can show vividly what’s inside the box. If you see any unusual items inside, that’s the time you open the box and inform the freight forwarder and eventually the owner.
2. Open and close it in front of a freight forwarder representative or under a CCTV camera.
3. Close it and put the things in order to avoid spilling and damages to the goods. If possible, provide a new box and have some people to repack the boxes.
4. K9 units are trained to detect illegal drugs, firearms or bombs.
5. Exempt the OFWs from taxes regardless of their status. Whether they are going home for good or stay abroad. These people are sending dollars every month if not every week which helps the economy for many decades now. Don’t you think it’s time for the country to give back to them even in this simple way?
6. Goods in commercial quantity is easy to detect. If the box contains half of the same items then it’s obviously for commercial purposes. But mind you, most of us are sending tons of canned goods to our family because we are giving it away to other relatives and friends too.
7. If you have the gall to implement such strict rules to the OFWs, you are also capable of implementing a much heavier rules to the people of your corrupt agency. File criminal charges to those who will be caught stealing the goods from the boxes. Those things are from the sweat and blood of the OFWs who endures pain, homesickness and abuse just to send those boxes for their beloved kids, parents, spouses and loved ones. Nobody has the right to even lay a hand on it.

On the other hand, the Overseas Filipino Workers should also be aware of the current laws of the country. Regardless of how unfair it is, the law is the law. No one could ever be above it. Knowing our rights is knowing our freedom but knowing the law is knowing where we stand.
The Balik-Bayan Box saga doesn’t start and ends with the Bureau of Customs. Those undelivered boxes are not to be blame to customs alone. There are tons of fake freight forwarders and brokers too so, beware. Some of them are opening and stealing from your boxes too. It is very important to know the reputation of these forwarders. For you to be sure your Balik-Bayan boxes will be delivered at your family’s doorstep (untouched and intact), here are some tips that you should note down:

1. It is important to ask a receipt every time you send and pay for your boxes.
2. If it’s your first time to send from abroad, ask around for the recommended freight forwarder.
3. Check the list of the accredited sea freight forwarders on this Department of Trade and Industry Link
4. You have the right to ask for the name and telephone number of the receiving forwarder or agent in your area or province and your family can follow up the status of the shipment with them.
5. Your family should be reminded that they have nothing to pay when they receive the package since it is already paid in full by you.
6. Make a list of everything which are inside the box and give a copy of this to your family.
7. You can always call the DTI hotline numbers posted on their website
8. Do not overcrowd your box. Please note that they are stacking up the boxes in ship containers. There are tons of boxes thrown and stacked over yours. If you overcrowd your box, there’s a possibility that some goods will be damaged or broken.
9. There are a lot of very good things which you can buy in the Philippines. These are even better and cheaper than those things which you plan to buy and send back home. Your son will even appreciate it if you’ll give him money to buy his rubber shoes because he can decide which color and style he wants rather than buying and sending it by yourself. You don’t need to send home everything (not to mention fabric conditioner and ballpens, oh please!)
10. Your presence is more important than all the material things you send through your Balik-Bayan box. Invest on plane tickets instead.

As of writing, President Aquino already called the attention of the Bureau of Customs chief. The opening of boxes was also halted and the boxes will go under the X-ray machines instead. There will be a thorough explanation and a demonstration of the X-ray machines to be used on Wednesday according to the President.

Several politicians also expressed their opinions on the matter and some of them considers the abolition of the law. However, there are rumours that the administration is behind these implementation to milk more taxes from the people particularly from OFWs for the campaign fund of Mar Roxas for 2016. True or not, the Philippine government MUST do something to protect the OFWs interest because after all, they are the unsung heroes which unfortunately, always the government’s last priority.

To all my fellow OFWs all over the world, you are a Hero! If not in the eyes of the world, at least in the eyes of those who appreciate your effort, sacrifices and unconditional love.



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