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House to probe rise of Pogos amid security, labor concerns

By: - Correspondent / @melvingasconINQ
/ 05:36 AM August 16, 2019

Lawmakers on Thursday called for a House investigation of the proliferation of Philippine offshore gaming operation (Pogo) sites manned largely by Chinese citizens, citing national security and labor concerns.

Puwersa ng Bayaning Atleta Rep. Jericho Nograles said Congress should exercise its oversight function and look into the “challenges” that the country faced in the wake of the “unforeseen” impact of the Pogo sites nationwide before it passed any measure to regulate them.

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He cited “sensitive” security concerns regarding the presence of Pogo sites close to military and police headquarters—Camp Aguinaldo (Armed Forces of the Philippines); Camp Crame (Philippine National Police); Camp Bagong Diwa (PNP National Capital Region Police Office); Fort Bonifacio (Philippine Army); Villamor Air Base (Philippine Air Force); and the Philippine Navy headquarters in Manila.

In a resolution, the Makabayan bloc on Thursday urged the House committee on games and amusements, as well as the committee on good government and public accountability, to conduct a joint inquiry to determine the impact of Pogos on the Filipino people, the local economy and national security.

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Military-looking men

“There is now grave concerns that the operation of offshore gambling in the country is not only used by its operators to skirt their national laws, particularly in mainland China, but is also being used by them to keep the laws of its host country at bay,” the Makabayan lawmakers said.

Nograles said he has received calls and messages from people who were saying that Chinese Pogo workers look more like military men than gambling call center agents.

He supported the proposal by Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) to confine Pogos in hubs where foreign workers would be provided not just work and residential spaces but also other amenities such as groceries, restaurants and recreational areas.

‘Ghettoization’

“I would have to say that we have to reassess the location of Pogos, and I stand with Pagcor that it is easier to regulate Pogos if they are created in hubs, and hopefully these hubs will stay away from military bases,” he said.

Pagcor also said foreign workers would be free to go outside these self-contained hubs. (See related story in Business, Page B2-1)

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The proposed hubs, however, were opposed by Trade Union Congress of the Philippines Rep. Raymond Mendoza, saying these showed “racism” and “ghettoization” of Chinese workers.

“The segregation and isolation of different races is unacceptable in a modern society. Migrant workers here in the country become more susceptible to exploitation when they are kept in seclusion,” Mendoza said in a statement.

He called on the Department of Labor and Employment (Dole) to inspect Pogos for their compliance with the country’s labor laws. He also urged the Bureau of Immigration to conduct audits to ensure that companies employing holders of alien employment permits were not exploiting their workers.

Mendoza said workers rights must be respected “regardless of race or nationality” and it was the responsibility of the Dole to ensure that the rights of foreign workers legally employed were “respected and upheld.”

Valid work permits

“There is big money behind these Pogos and it is time to subject these companies to the kind of intense scrutiny that will address these fundamental rights and crackdown on any exploitation of workers,” he said.

1-Pacman Rep. Enrico Pineda, chair of the House committee on labor, said Congress would also have to ascertain whether the foreign Pogo workers have valid work permits and were not taking away jobs from Filipinos.

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Malacañang will support the proposed hubs as long as there were no violations of the rights of Pogo employees.

“We have to protect all the nationals of any country in our country,” Panelo said at a press briefing on Thursday.

Mendoza said there were reports of Chinese workers being lured into Pogos with promises of big salaries but end up in poor working conditions and “outright exploitation.”

He said some of the reports included alleged torture and kidnappings of these workers.

Debt-related abductions

Following the influx of Chinese nationals and the increase in the number of Pogos, the PNP’s Anti-Kidnapping Group (PNP-AKG) noted a surge in casino debt-related abductions .

In a statement, Col. Jonnel Estomo, the PNP-AKG director, said that as of June 2019 there were 56 licensed Pogos in the country, employing 100,000 to 250,000 Chinese nationals. In addition, there were about 30 illegal Pogos.

Estomo noted that since 2017 there had been 52 cases of casino-related kidnappings of Chinese nationals, mostly by their compatriots, 119 of whom have been arrested.

The Chinese influx created opportunities for some of their compatriots to get involved in the “wicked business of loan sharking” inside casino premises, he said.

Estomo said kidnap gangs offered accommodations and gambling money to Chinese nationals who were required to sign promissory notes, turn over their passports and to give 20 to 30 percent of their winnings as commission to the group.

If the victim loses, he would be detained, beaten up and the videos showing them being tortured would be sent to their families to force them to pay large amounts for their release, he explained. —WITH REPORTS FROM TINA G. SANTOS, JULIE M. AURELIO AND JEANNETTE I. ANDRADE

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TAGS: Chinese gaming operators, Philippine offshore gaming operation, Puwersa ng Bayaning Atleta Rep. Jericho Nograles
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