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Villanueva, Hontiveros, Gatchalian oppose partial resumption of POGO operations

The government is taking high risks which may backfire as it allowed the partial opening of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, senators said Friday.

"I don't see the logic of opening it up. Lahat ng eksperto nagsasabi na hindi po ito essential sector," Senator Joel Villanueva, chair of the Senate committee on labor, said in a virtual conference with reporters.

"Sakaling magkaroon ng outbreak ang industriya at dito nagsimula sa POGO sector, sino po bang gobyerno ang gagambalain nito? Kaninong salapi po ba ang gagastusin na naman para i-address ang problemang ito?" he added.

Earlier in the day, Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR) chairman and CEO Andrea Domingo announced that POGOs will be allowed to resume operations amid the COVID-19 situation, provided that only 30% of the workforce will return to work while observing precautionary measures.

He reiterated that POGO workers usually work in confined office spaces where virus transmission is likely.

The several issues including the P50-billion worth of tax evasion, alleged prostitution and entry of illegal Chinese workers hounding the industry were also pointed out by the senator.

"(Halos) 0.04 percent lamang ang naiaambag nito na net financial flow sa ating ekonomiya, sa ating GDP for the last three years. Lumabas po ito sa ating pagdinig," he added, noting that there are 120 illegal POGO firms operating in the country.

Villanueva said other more productive industries should be considered to be prioritized for the gradual reopening of the economy.

"Mas importante na matunton natin at mabigyan ng prayoridad 'yung mga sektor na may malaking naaambag sa ating ekonomiya at mababa yung risk ng transmission of this virus. Nandiyan ang agriculture, manufacturing, at construction," he said.

Senator Risa Hontiveros also expressed dissent to the partial resumption of POGOs.

"The resumption of POGO means mobility for at least 120,000 POGO workers, most of them in NCR, the center of the COVID-19 transmission," she said in a Twitter post.

"This move of the IATF undermines our efforts to contain the coronavirus and opens the country to the other problems that POGOs bring. It’s a risk for public health & safety!" she added.

Echoing the points raised by Villanueva, she demanded an explanation from the PAGCOR.

"Nakakadismaya na inuna pa nating ibalik ang mga POGO workers sa trabaho kesa ang mga kapwa Pilipino," Hontiveros said.

"PAGCOR should explain why it moved to recommend the opening of POGO while there are vehement opinions and serious concerns against it. Bakit parang nagmamadali e naka ECQ pa tayo?" she added.

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian also pointed out that there is an "issue of trust" in the industry.

"How can we expect POGO operators to adhere to our health regulations if they don't adhere to our tax laws, they don't adhere to our immigration laws, they don't adhere to our criminal laws?" he said.

Citing data from the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, Gatchalian stressed that the projected annual P7 billion revenues from POGOs is nothing compared to the possible P2.5 trillion losses due to COVID-19.

"'We cannot afford another lockdown due to re-emergence of the virus. Let's focus our energies eliminating the spread of the virus rather than fighting fires the POGOs will eventually create," he added.

According to PAGCOR, there are about 90,000 Chinese nationals and about 31,000 Filipinos in the POGO industry.

Data from DOH showed that 34% of the 70 foreigners who tested positive for COVID-19 in the Philippines are Chinese.

The Senate committees involved in the probe on the POGO industry would most likely hold another hearing, possibly via teleconference, after the session resumes on May 4, according to Villanueva.—AOL, GMA News