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Senator Ralph Recto demanded an accounting Sunday from BoC on the huge x-ray machines bought in 2006, and augmented in 2013, to scan containers as a check against smuggling. The X-rays should be the main mode of checking items brought into the country, and the “intrusive program” of randomly inspecting Balikbayan boxes, said Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto. The initial 30 X-ray machines used in seaports were bought with a $75-M loan from China and allocated a P298-million budget for their upkeep, according to records obtained by Recto’s office. A second P148-M deal involved 20 X-ray units, this time for the airports. The senator explained the X-ray program “was meant to do away with manual inspections kasi nga daw kapag ginamitan ng X-ray, parang see-through na ang loob ng isang van [because we were told that if the big X-rays are used, it’s as if an examiner has seen the inside of a container van].” The program “was designed to replace tedious, inefficient manual and balikbayan box-to-balikbayan box inspection. The justification was to use technology to remove the guesswork involved on determining which one to open. It was supposed to make the opening of boxes redundant,” explained Recto. In a statement, Recto, chairman of the Senate finance subcommittee reviewing the Bureau of Customs (BOC) budget, said agency officials will be grilled on the status of non-intrusive inspection techniques, which could detect contraband goods without opening tens of thousands of balikbayan boxes sent home by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). “There are ways to catch the rat without burning the entire house down,” Recto said in stressing “that programs to find big-time smugglers and not a few bars of bath soap in a balikbayan box” are already funded under the BOC’s operating budget this year. One of these is the P298 million allotted for the upkeep of 30 made-in-China “big” X-ray machines that are installed in the country‘s 10 biggest ports, Recto said. The X-ray machines, which can scan one 40- and 20-foot shipping container in minutes, were acquired in 2006 at a cost of $2.5 million each through a loan from the Chinese government. Recto said under a Palace order governing the “Non-Intrusive Container Inspection System,” each 40-footer van is charged a “container security fee” of $10, and $5 for a twenty-footer. “This year, fees collected from the operation of these X-ray machines will reach almost P1.2 billion,” he said. Seventy-five percent of this amount will be used to repay China.
P148-M contract for 20 X-rays at airports
To augment the Chinese-made X-ray machines, Recto said the BOC in 2013 invited bidders to a P148 million contract to supply 20 X-ray machines to be installed in airports. Recto suggested that X-ray machines be installed as well in Post Offices where BOC personnel hold office, in order to check incoming parcel for taxable goods. “Ito yung dapat ilagay sa mga malalaking Post Offices kasi marami talagang mga OFW na nagrereklamo na isa-isang bubuklatin ang mga padala nila,” Recto said. To remove the motive to check shipped or mailed parcels for dutiable goods, Recto urged the government to triple to $1,500 the current allowed value of the contents of balikbayan box exempt from taxes. “Sa ngayon kasi, nili-limit ng BOC Memorandum Circular No. 7990 sa $500 ang value ng laman ng bawat balikbayan box. This rate was set 25 years ago, in 1990.” He explained the logic was raising the limit for the worth of contents” “Most OFWs don’t put items that are worth $1,000 or more. Most of the items they send home are soap bars and other small items that could be used by their families. So if we raised the cap, there is no longer any motive to go through that,” he said. Recto said raising the threshold of balikbayan box value “is a small thing compared to the P2.28 trillion that they sent back home last year.”
CCTVs in all Customs zones
Meanwhile, Recto said there are also “unspent, unobligated appropriations” for the installation of a CCTV system in all BOC ports and offices. Earlier, the senator proposed that all BOC inspections of balikbayan boxes be recorded by a camera. “No CCTV, no opening of boxes must be the rule,” he had said. Recto said under the Customs bureau’s P3.05 billion budget for 2015, “there’s P26.2 million in intelligence funds, under ‘confidential’ and ‘extraordinary’ expenses.” “Take note that this is double the intelligence fund of the BIR,” Recto said. According to him, most of the biggest apprehensions made by BOC “were products of good intelligence work and not nitpicking through balikbayan boxes.” “There is a need to apprehend syndicates that send drugs and guns through balikbayan boxes. This must be the focus, based on case build-up and solid detective work, and not on the random opening of boxes sent by OFWs,” Recto said. “The bigger issue is for BOC to run after big-time smugglers, those who, for example, bring in rice in ships as big as a mall,” he said. “Or, as in the case of the reported smuggling of oil and fuel, in tankers a million times bigger and easier to spot than a balikbayan box,” he added.
OFW concerns will reach President Aquino – Valte
Also on Sunday, Malacañang assured OFWs that their issues on the Customs handling of their balikbayan boxes will be brought to the attention of President Benigno S. Aquino III. Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said they have gathered all feedback they received from OFWs through various communication channels on the new BOC rules and are currently assessing them. “Marami na ho tayong mga nakuhang open letter, marami na po tayong nakuhang mga Facebook messages, mga email at binubuo po naming lahat ito at sinisigurado po naming makakarating ito sa Pangulong Aquino,” Valte told Radyo ng Bayan. Among the concerns raised by the OFWs in their complaints is the impression that the BOC might be infringing on their tax and duty-free privileges. Valte took note of this, saying the BOC should really look into it, as she expressed understanding on where these particular sentiments of OFWs are coming from. “We understand the sentiments of those sending us feedback, because as well know, OFWs save up each payday to buy the items they will store in the balikbayan box. They diligently do this so they can send something to their families,” Valte said, speaking in Filipino. Valte earlier said the BOC’s new process in handling balikbayan boxes serves merely as a deterrent to potential smuggling cases and is not meant to single out OFWs. “Hindi po tina-target ang ating mga OFWs. Ang atas lang naman po sa BOC ay siguraduhing malinis at mabilis ang proseso… The process will not cause any hold up in the release of the balikbayan boxes and that the property inside should be respected as well,” she said in an interview Saturday.