MANILA (UPDATE) - Philippine immigration personnel and relevant local handlers, including members of alleged syndicates, are receiving "service fees" from Chinese nationals who enter the country as tourists but work in the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) industry, a senator said Monday.
Citing an unnamed informant, Sen. Risa Hontiveros said each Chinese national pays an additional P10,000 to travel agencies in China, to be distributed among Immigration personnel in Manila airports, tour operators and "syndicates" who facilitate the transfer to POGO sites.
Immigration and airport officials were quick to deny being aware of the alleged bribery scheme, dubbed "pastillas" modus because the cash is rolled in bond papers as with the milk candy Filipino delicacy. The expose will be investigated, Immigration spokesperson Dana Sandoval said.
At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality, which Hontiveros chaired, the lawmaker said that of the P10,000-service fee, the P2,000 is divided among officials from the Travel Control and Enforcement Unit, duty Immigration supervisor and terminal heads.
The remaining P8,000 is given to tour operators and "syndicates" who will transport the Chinese nationals from the airport to POGO sites.
"'Yong mga Pilipino, ang hirap hirap makapunta sa ibang bansa, pinapahirapan sa immigration. Pero ang sa'tin, parang karinderyang bukas sa lahat?" Hontiveros told Immigration and airport officials at the hearing.
("Filipinos find it hard to travel to other countries. The immigration there is making it hard for them. But for us here, we're like an eatery that's open for all?")
"Sabi nila, maraming dalang investments itong POGO. Pero imbes na investments, bakit parang naging invasion?" she said.
("They say that POGO brings in a lot of investments. But, why does it seem like an invasion, instead of investments?")
From Nov. 15 to 28, 2018, officials involved in the scheme received P1.75 million worth of "pastillas," the senator alleged. Chinese companies were also made to shoulder meals for airport officers.
A P2,000 bonus is also allotted for Immigration officials with perfect attendance, she added.
Hontiveros flashed a video showing an Immigration official escorting Chinese nationals in parts of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Immigration officials identify the Chinese nationals who paid the "service fees" through pictures sent through a Viber group, the senator said as she presented screen captures of a chat group.
"Hindi standard procedure yan! 'Wag niyong ide-deny na ang mga nakita natin sa video ay wala lang. Bakit parang may VIP escort itong mga Chinese nationals papasok ng bansa?" she said.
("That is not standard procedure! Don't deny that what we see on video is just nothing. Why does it appear that Chinese nationals arriving in our country have VIP escort?")
'COMPLICIT OR NEGLIGENT' ?
"This is the first time I saw this particular breakdown of accounts," Immigration Port Operations Division acting chief Grifton Medina told the Senate panel.
Airport personnel are usually reshuffled every 45 days to avoid corruption, he said.
Replying to a query from ABS-CBN News, Sandoval, the agency's spokesperson, said Immigration commissioner Jaime Morente "has ordered a full blown investigation to identify those who are possibly part of this syndicate to file both administrative and criminal cases against them."
"Commissioner Morente is deeply alarmed at the exposes of ... Hontiveros during today's Senate hearing," Sandoval said.
Hontiveros said immigration bosses "did not try hard enough" to clean the agency.
"Only 2 things: Nagmamaang-maangan kayo pero alam niyo ang nangyayari or hindi niyo alam ang nangyayari. Either you are complicit or you are negligent. I don't know which is worse," she said.
Hontiveros' committee has been investigating abuses committed by Chinese-run POGO firms in the country, saying unregulated gaming firms are connected to the rise of prostitution in the Philippines.
Several thousands of Chinese nationals have been employed in POGOs in recent years amid the Chinese government's crackdown on gambling, which it regards as illegal.