Opening The Box Worms: The Balikbayan Box Issue

Over the past few days, the Bureau of Customs has been under fire after they declared their “brilliant” solution in combatting smugglers who use balikbayan boxes as a cover to their activities: random inspection of balikbayan boxes by opening them. While the intentions may be good, especially that the idea is to defeat smugglers who are tarnishing the sanctity of balikbayan boxes, it was met with criticism especially from families of OFWs who have been breaking their backs just to fill those boxes.

The whole balikbayan box debacle has tackled a lot of issues, most especially that the Bureau of Customs is one of the most distrusted government agencies in the country. While it may be the biggest issues since OFWs and their families are afraid of customs official rummaging through their boxes and stealing some of their items or imposing them with unreasonable taxes. Why is the Bureau of Customs on a warpath and why do OFWs also have to pay the price of it?

Losses due to smuggling

On paper, it seems like the Bureau of Customs’ idea to hold spot checks on some balikbayan boxes that reach their jurisdiction. After all, the said government agency is the country’s first line of defense against smugglers who want to profit off misdeclared goods. Unfortunately, the country is losing billions because of negligence by our beloved customs officials.

According to the US-based think tank Global Financial Integrity, our country is losing around USD 3.85 million in customs revenue due to smugglers finding their way to get past customs check. Unfortunately, the bad news doesn’t end there. The group furthered that the losses incurred by horrible customs practices has made it possible for smugglers to increasingly get away with smuggling, as the damage to the government fund grows bigger each year.

Most corrupt of the corrupt

The Bureau of Customs is our best line of defense against illegal importers who want to get away from paying their dues. However, it seems that the people are afraid of the said agency because they are also one of the least trusted agencies in our government. In a survey conducted by the Social Weather Station last year, the Bureau of Customs ranked first as the most corrupt government agency with a rating of -63, which is equivalent to “very bad.”

Aside from the said survey, we’ve heard them all before: stories about customs officials pilfering items from balikbayan boxes—especially those items that are valuable like smartphones, designer items, and other items that seem to be expensive—and pocketing them. Whether they’re via our friends or social media, it seems that some people in the Bureau of Customs have a really bad case of kleptomania, and this give the entire agency a bad reputation.

The flaw of balikbayan box

Unfortunately, the fault here doesn’t just come from the Bureau of Customs. While people revere the balikbayan box since it has a long cultural story with Filipinos leaving their country for greener pastures, there is something inherently wrong with the balikbayan box. To most familes of OFWs, getting a balikbayan box from other countries is like hitting jackpot in a lottery.

Unfortunately, some OFWs would rather stuff their boxes with material goods and ship them afterwards instead of saving their money for something more significant. These items, which are merely an obvious show of wealth, are nothing but temporary satiation to such goods. The money used for an entire balikbayan box can be used to something long term like savings, investment, and others. However, Filipinos just love the taste of imported chocolates and other goods, even if they’re readily available here nowadays.

Possible conclusion?

Despite the good intentions of the Bureau of Customs , targeting balikbayan boxes isn’t actually the real solution; the real solution to smuggling is cleaning up their own backyard and getting rid of officials who are in cahoots with the smugglers. Aside from restoring the confidence of the public to the agency, it will also reduce the damage done by illegal importers significantly.

As for the people, it’s about time we stop the balikbayan box mentality and start thinking long term. Sure, sending a balikbayan box every now and then can bring smiles, but their contents only last for a very short time. Instead, put the money in a savings account or invest it in something more substantial. After all, OFWs won’t stay in other countries forever; they also have to go back. Do you want to come back home for good, only to know that everything you worked for overseas is just for nothing?