With investors complaining of continued rampant smuggling and a special task force concluding that there’s extortion outside and inside the Port of Manila, the Bureau of Customs has trained its sights on a particular target: balikbayan boxes. While the objective may be sound and there may be sufficient basis for the move, the BOC suffers from a credibility problem in performing its tasks, and it may have to fine-tune its campaign.
Foremost of the criticism is that the BOC is going after the small fry while allowing the big fish to get away. Overseas Filipino workers, among the biggest senders of the balikbayan boxes, have been stung by the insinuation that they are smugglers. OFWs have taken to social media to denounce the new BOC rules requiring stringent random inspection including opening of balikbayan boxes.
Customs inspectors are bound to find a lot to either confiscate or subject to tariffs. Under the rules, only items for personal use, not in commercial quantities, can be sent by balikbayan box. These include clothing, canned goods and other food items. The total amount of the goods cannot exceed $500, and each consignee is limited to just one box every six months.
Those rules were approved to prevent the use of the balikbayan privilege for smuggling. BOC officials say the privilege has been abused, and they have found even refrigerators in the boxes. They have promised to handle boxes with extreme care to prevent damage to the items, many of which are sent by OFWs to their relatives in the Philippines. OFWs have complained that the items are mainly the fruits of their hard work and they fear damage to the goods or pilferage.
With the reaction from the most affected sector, the government should review this policy, including a possible amendment of the rules. There must be a way of reconciling BOC objectives with people’s desire to share their blessings with their loved ones in the Philippines.