By William Casis

Senators Risa Hontiveros and Francis Pangilinan pushed for an inquiry into the efforts by the state gaming regulator to “exclude” Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs) from the government-imposed quarantine amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hontiveros and Pangilinan filed Senate Resolution No. 396 after the government’s COVID-19 policy allowed POGOs to resume its partial operations following the recommendation of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor).

“Pagcor’s actuations in lobbying for an exception in favor of the POGO industry threaten to unduly put the health and well-being of the Filipino people at risk by undermining the ECQ ,” the two senators said in their resolution.

“Even going by the official estimate, allowing more than 50,000 workers in the online gambling industry to return to work represents a substantial exception to the ECQ rules,” they said.

Pagcor Chairman Andrea Domingo said that the licensed POGOs would be allowed to resume operations “on a very limited basis and with very strict protocols.”

Before POGOs are allowed to operate, they would first have to meet certain safety and health requirements, according to Domingo.

But Hontiveros and Pangilinan are apprehensive that even if POGOs follow physical distancing, wearing of masks, frequent hand washing and sanitation, these will not be enough.

Allowing the partial re-opening of POGO operations could reverse the country’s efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, they said. It could lead to a community spread like the second wave of COVID-19 in South Korea due to bars re-opening.

In defending the re-opening of POGOs despite the ECQ, both Malacañang and Pagcor argued that POGOs are part of the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector.

BPOs are among the businesses allowed to operate in quarantine areas, provided that a skeleton staff is observed or a work-from-home arrangement is adopted.

But the Information Technology and Business Process Association (IBPAP) rejected any similarity between on-line gambling and outsourcing business.

According to IBPAP, POGOs are not part of the annual IT-BPO Headcount and Revenue report, which in 2019 ended with 1.3 million direct employees and $26.3 billion in revenues, the senators noted.

Pagcor had also argued that revenues from POGO operations could be a significant source of funds for the government’s COVID-19 response.

It said operators are ordered to pay all tax obligations up to March 2020 before they would be allowed to resume operations and only registered workers cleared in COVID-19 rapid tests would be allowed to report back to work.

However, the senators pointed out that in a Senate labor committee hearing last February, an official from the Bureau of Internal Revenue revealed that the majority of the licensed POGOs failed to pay the government an estimated total of PHP50 billion in withholding and franchise taxes in 2019.

Hontiveros and Pangilinan said the uncollected taxes of POGOs could be a source of additional government funds for COVID-19 response.

“(But these) taxes need to be collected regardless of the industry’s status of operations during the community quarantine,” they said.

The lawmakers said the resumption of POGO operations will have minimal impact on the country’s economy.

They cited records from Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) records which showed that the industry only accounts for 0.04 percent. of the domestic economy.

Earlier this week, House Minority Leader Bienvenido Abante Jr. led a group of congressmen in filing an Anti-POGO Act which seeks to declare POGOs illegal by prohibiting the operations of any offshore gaming by any means or device within the country.