Cayetano: Social distancing may be ‘a problem’ as POGOs reopen

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A cramped POGO office in Parañaque has been raided by authorities last week (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 1) — Authorities will likely encounter problems in ensuring that Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators or POGOs comply with social distancing rules as they restart operations on Friday, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said.

The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation allowed POGO services to proceed with partial operations after being shuttered for the past six weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pagcor chair Andrea Domingo said 30 percent of a POGO's workforce will be allowed to return to work, insisting they are part of the business process outsourcing sector covered by the new quarantine rules.

President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesperson, Harry Roque, previously said that should the government allow POGOs to reopen, it can only be attributed to the country's need for more funding. Critics, however, pointed out that POGOs have not been paying their taxes right.

Citing news reports of police raids in cramped POGO offices and housing, Cayetano said authorities might have to go the extra mile in making sure that the “new normal” rules meant to prevent further infections are followed by these companies.

Sa lahat ng bibigyan ng exemption [for all industries given exemptions], maging BPO ‘yan, POGO, or grocery, please follow the rules. I think IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases) should look at that, na there’s difference in theory allowing something and actual (implementation),” Cayetano told CNN Philippines’ The Source.

READ: Parañaque mayor wants Chinese POGO workers deported, on tight watch for other illegal POGO operations

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, Jr. announced during Friday's Laging Handa briefing that all POGO employees must undergo COVID-19 testing before they are allowed to return to work. The Palace official said it will be up to employers to decide if they will use the PCR method or rapid kit testing to check a worker's health.

"Syempre 'yung mga positive, hindi papayagan [Of course those who test positive for COVID-19 will not be allowed to report to work]," Roque said.

Cayetano went on to disclose that he was not in favor of allowing POGOs to remain in the country.

“Whether may ECQ o wala [Whether it’s enhanced community quarantine or not], I am against POGOs. I don’t believe in gaming or gambling. I think the damage to morality, to society is worse than that,” the House leader said, as he acknowledged that existing rules allow their operations.

READ: ₱7-B revenues not enough to justify POGO crimes in PH, senators say

Sa akin basta’t pare-pareho ang rules lahat sa BPO industry, sa call centers and walang palakasan, and everyone follows same rules… Kung sasabihin na kailangan naka-house ang employees, kung may social distancing, kailangan sumunod sila (POGOs) [For me, it will be okay as long as everyone in the BPO industry, in call centers, there won’t be favoritism, and everyone (should) follow the same rules… If it’s required to house employees and practice social distancing, they should follow],” he added.

In a statement, a group of POGO-related firms ensured that they will comply with guidelines set by government, adding that offices will be deep-cleaned and disinfected. The Accredited Service Providers Association of Pagcor or ASPAP said its members will be testing their Filipino and foreign workers for COVID-19 prior to deployment, will pay taxes to Bureau of Internal Revenue, and remit the ₱350-million minimum guaranteed fee, and will observe proper physical distancing as prescribed by the gaming regulator.

The group also said they welcome their classification as BPOs: "To stress a point – POGOs are offshore gaming operators, while POGO service providers are typical Philippine-based BPO companies that are purely paid service fees,” ASPAP said.

A police raid in a secret POGO operations in Parañaque City over the weekend revealed Chinese nationals working in a cramped office despite a working ban in the industry.

“I don’t think naman all POGOs are the same… [but] enforcement is a problem,” Cayetano said, noting that implementation is also the concern as most provinces transition to relaxed rules under general community quarantine.

RELATED: Robredo: Why re-open POGOs before Filipino businesses?

He added that he still has to check if the House will move to also ban POGOs for good, following the resolution filed by Senator Risa Hontiveros in the upper chamber earlier this week.

​Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, meanwhile, said he doubts if these companies will really adhere to strict distancing rules.

“The issue here is trust. 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? Reopening POGOs will unduly expose our Filipino workers to infection from the virus,” he said in a statement.

He said letting POGO workers loose could trigger a second wave of infections, which could prove more costly than the ₱7 billion in income expected from them annually.

“Let's focus our energies (on) eliminating the spread of the virus rather than fighting fires the POGOs will eventually create," he added.