By Janvic Mateo, August 8 2019; Philippine Star

Image Credit to Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines — Chinese nationals working in Philippine offshore gaming operations (POGOs) will be transferred to “self-contained” communities or hubs that will limit their interaction with Filipinos, according to an official of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor).

In an interview with “The Chiefs” aired on Cignal TV’s One News Tuesday night, Pagcor vice president for offshore gaming Jose Tria said these POGO hubs would address complaints of Filipinos over the reported unruly behavior of some Chinese workers.

“That is the reason why we came up with these POGO hubs. These will be self-contained communities (so we can limit the) interaction between Filipinos and foreign workers,” Tria said.

“As soon as… the private participation is able to set up these hubs, we will be canceling all their authority to operate outside these hubs. We will put them there so it is easier to monitor,” he added in a mix of English and Filipino.

The POGO hubs would have safeguards, including the establishment of government offices inside these communities for monitoring, according to Tria.

Agencies that will have offices include the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Bureau of Immigration and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

Tria said local government units may also set up offices in these hubs, particularly local police offices, to ensure security.

Pagcor chairman and chief executive officer Andrea Domingo had earlier announced that it approved the establishment of two POGO hubs in Clark, Pampanga and Kawit, Cavite, to be operated by offshore gaming firm Oriental Game.

Domingo said these hubs aim to attract more investors and make it easier for the government to regulate the industry.

Higher income

In the same interview, Tria said the government has increased its collection from offshore gaming operations from a mere P56 million in the previous administration to more than P7 billion last year.

He said the increase was due to changes in regulatory mechanisms, as he noted that POGO was previously managed by the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority (CEZA) and not Pagcor.

“In Pagcor, it is already 11 percent of our income,” he said. “What is good is that there are no overhead expenses for the government, we’re just there to monitor.”

Tria said the bulk of the market of POGOs are Chinese, but there are also other nationalities, such as Malaysian, Indonesian and Russian operating offshore gaming in the country.

He also explained the increase in the number of Chinese workers, saying these POGOs need to hire those who know the language and have knowledge of cultural nuances as they are involved in call centers that deal with their target market.

Security issues

Meanwhile, a maritime security expert said there are valid national security concerns over the reported plan of Chinese firms to develop three Philippine islands into tourist destinations and economic zones.

Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea, agreed with military and defense officials that there may be security implications if the Chinese are allowed to have control of Fuga Island in Cagayan and Grande and Chiquita Islands in Subic Bay.

“These islands are strategically located. Fuga Island to the north is at the major sea lanes that provide access between South China Sea and Pacific Ocean,” Batongbacal said in the same interview with “The Chiefs.”

“So any, all maritime traffic that goes through there can be surveiled through Fuga Island,” he added.

Batongbacal also noted that Fuga Island is also near where the country’s telecommunications cables pass, making it theoretically possible for someone based on this island to tap into these cables.

“How possible, how feasible is that? It depends really on the determination and technology available, so I can understand why the Navy is so concerned,” he said.

Grande and Chiquita Islands, meanwhile, provide a strategic location to monitor activities in Subic, which is being eyed as a base for the Philippine Navy, according to the maritime expert.

“From there obviously you can easily see what’s going on in the entire bay and you can see every ship that goes in and out of Subic Bay. That is supposed to be not only a freeport zone right now, but in the future, possibly, it’s being considered as well as a possible Navy base for us. That’s why it’s also very important,” he said.

The area is a major facility being used by the country’s allies, including the United States, that often use it for port calls for warships and submarines, according to Batongbacal.

He said the government must consider national security whenever it pursues economic development.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had earlier raised concern over a reported government plan to allow Chinese firms to develop the three Philippine islands into tourist destinations.

“All we can do now is to monitor what else they are doing that may have impact on our security,” Lorenzana said on Monday.

He added that they were not consulted when Fuga Island was offered to the Chinese to be transformed into a tourist destination.

The CEZA had earlier revealed having secured $3.9 billion worth of investment commitments from Chinese firms for various projects.

They supposedly made the commitment on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Initiative Forum held recently in Beijing, China.

Under a memorandum of understanding with Xiamen-based Fong Zhi Enterprise Corp., a $2-billion Smart City would be built in Fuga Island, to be patterned after the Chinese firm’s ongoing mega infrastructure project in Fujian province in China.

Similar plans have been reported for Grande and Chiquita Islands in Subic, Zambales.

DOLE’s move

With Pagcor’s plans to limit operations of POGOs to hubs outside Metro Manila, the DOLE is deploying more labor inspectors to the provinces.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III yesterday reported that the DOLE is hiring more labor inspectors in the coming years and deploying them to areas where most POGOs are operating.

“We deploy labor inspectors nationwide, but mostly in the National Capital Region, Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog and Cagayan Valley,” Bello said during the weekly forum “Kapihan sa Manila Bay.”

“They thought I ordered the deployment of more inspectors in Cagayan because I’m from the region, but it is because we are mobilizing labor inspectors to areas where most of the POGOs are,” he added.

In the first semester of 2019, Bello said DOLE has issued a total of 51,695 alien employment permits (AEPs). The figure was more than double or 143 percent higher than the number of AEPs issued during the same period last year.

He added that many of the AEPs were issued to foreign nationals employed in POGOs. More than half or 55 percent of the foreign nationals granted AEPs are Chinese nationals.

The Chinese nationals, according to Bello, are employed in jobs requiring proficiency in Mandarin. He noted that there are Filipinos who can speak Fookien, but only a few are fluent in Mandarin.

“Our primary condition in issuing AEPs is that it will not cause disenfranchisement of Filipino workers,” Bello said.

In a related development, Philippine visas to be stamped on Chinese passports will show the map of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and territorial claims, according to Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

President Duterte on Monday approved Locsin’s proposal to stamp Philippine visas directly on passports of Chinese nationals who wish to enter the country instead of the practice adopted before of placing it on a piece of paper.

“The stamp has the map of the entire Philippine EEZ to its widest extent, including Benham Rise, along with other territorial claims. So tit for tat,” Locsin tweeted. – With Mayen Jaymalin, Pia Lee-Brago, Robertzon Ramirez, Ding Cervantes