MANILA (UPDATE) - Partial resumption of operations of Philippine offshore gaming operators could "worsen" the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a senator warned Friday, calling it a "non-essential" industry.
Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) is a "high-risk" industry because most of their workers usually live and work in small condominium units, Senate Committee on Labor chair Joel Villanueva told DZMM radio.
"'Pag kumalat na naman po 'yan (COVID-19), gobyerno na naman po natin ang mamromroblema, gobyerno na naman po natin ang gagastos," he said in a radio DZMM interview.
(If COVID-19 spreads again, it will be our government's problem. It is government that will have to spend to contain it.)
"Hindi po ito dapat pagtuunan ng pansin lalo ngayon dahil may mas importante pang mga industriya na dapat asikasuhin at tulungan makabangon," he said.
(The government should not focus on this especially now when we have more important industries that need aid to recover.)
The country's coronavirus task force allowed POGOs, mostly Chinese-run and based in Metro Manila, to re-open with up to 30 percent of their workforce after fulfilling requirements, Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. Chair Andrea Domingo said.
Only registered workers and those who will be cleared in COVID-19 rapid tests will be allowed to go to work, she said.
Operators were ordered to pay all tax obligations up to March 2020, before they will be allowed to operate, Domingo said. Some 31,600 Filipino direct employees also need to be paid from April even though work was suspended due to the lockdown, she said.
Villanueva warned there is no assurance that POGOs will adhere to the Health department's policy of physical distancing, frequent hand sanitation and constant wearing of masks in workplaces, saying the industry has repeatedly violated laws even before the COVID-19 crisis.
"Kamakailan, may nahuli na POGO operation sa Parañaque. Malinaw ito na paglabag sa mga guidelines na pinatupad ng Inter-Agency Task Force," he told Senate reporters in a separate message.
(Recently, there was a POGO operation that was busted in Parañaque for clearly violating guidelines enforced by the Inter-Agency Task Force.)
"How will they strictly enforce that when they cannot even stop the ones illegally operating under quarantine?" he said.
"Pinagtataka po natin kung bakit kating-kati ang ilan sa atin na i-prioritize ang sektor na ito? Tulungan po muna natin ang mga mas mahalagang sektor na nag-aambag sa ekonomiya at lumilikha ng trabaho para sa ating mga kababayan," he said.
(We are wondering why some are so eager to prioritize this sector? Let us help more important sectors that contribute largely to our economy and generate jobs for Filipinos.)
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque earlier likened the POGO industry to business processing outsourcing businesses that generate funds for the government.
WHERE'S PAYMENT FOR FRANCHISE TAXES?
Villanueva debunked this claim, saying only 3 out of the hundreds of POGO firms in the country paid for their franchise taxes.
PAGCOR officials earlier told a Senate panel that at least 120 POGOs are operating illegally in the country, he said.
"We are sure it's way more than that," the senator said, noting that the Department of Finance said the POGO industry has failed to pay at least P50 billion in taxes.
"Kung nakolekta lamang iyon, may karagdagang pondo sana ang ating mga emergency employment programs o kaya nadagdagan natin ang pondo para sa ating mga frontliner," Villanueva said.
(If we only collected that amount, we could have had more funds for our emergency employment programs or we could have increased funds for our frontliners.)
The return of POGOs will have minimal impact on the country's economy as the industry only accounts for 0.04 percent of the Philippines' gross domestic product, Villanueva said, citing data from the Department of Finance (DOF).
"No doubt we are looking at this [resumption of POGO operations] as a special consideration," he said.
At least 5 senators backed proposals to permanently "stop" online gambling operations in the country.
"We're supposed to close our hearings and come up with a committee report, but some of our colleagues want another one [hearing], last one before we report it out to plenary," Villanueva said when asked about the status of the anti-POGO measure.
Before Senate suspended sessions for a 2-month break in March, the chamber found that POGOs have been engaged in several illicit activities, including corrupting Immigration officials and pimping women on social messaging platforms.