Cracking down on POGOs

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    SNAPS to Makati Mayor Abby Binay for putting her foot down on the service providers of Philippine offshore gaming operators, commonly known as POGOs. While Makati is not ground zero for the incubation of these businesses from China, (my bet is that this claim goes to Parañaque) the spread has been so prolific that it has reached neighboring cities like Makati, Madaluyong, and Pasig. Long-time residents of Makati cannot ignore the changes in our communities since POGOs started coming in. Apartment rentals in barangays like Palanan, San Isidro, San Antonio and Pio del Pilar have sky-rocketed in the past two years, a fact alluded to by Mayor Binay in her statement announcing that City Hall will no longer accept applications for business permits from POGOs.

    These barangays, while traditionally more expensive rent-wise than La Paz or Pitogo because of its proximity to the central business district, was still affordable for ordinary office workers five or six years ago. A young couple I know was forced to move out of their two-bedroom apartment in Palanan due to rising rent, exacerbated by offers from brokers for Chinese companies offering double the price and one year’s payment in advance. Many old families in those areas have relocated elsewhere, instead choosing to lease their properties because of the lucrative price.

    Even village associations have been enforcing regulations like hawks, already wise to the ruse of renting a house and filling it with 40 to 50 workers from POGOs. Some property owners, on the other hand, are now refusing to rent out their homes to those from the industry, citing previous experiences that have left their homes in unbelievable disrepair and decay. “It’s just not worth it,” one homeowner told me. “You think that the rent they’re paying is worth it but wait ‘til they leave and you see the carnage.” Villages like Bel-Air and Dasmariñas are running stringent checks on potential leases to make sure that the regulations are followed, stressing that single-family set-ups are preferred.

    It’s a bold move from Mayor Binay, considering that the move means losing roughly P200 million in revenue from business taxes. If memory serves, Makati is the first LGU to walk away from the lure of hosting POGOs. And with good reason: apart from insane rental prices, the activities that come with POGOs are less than desirable. I remember joking with a colleague once, while watching news of a police raid on a sex den catering to POGO workers, that the “downstream industry” of online gaming was something else. “When BPOs come to a city, you see small businesses and convenience stores follow. Taxi drivers, tricycles and even balut vendors feel the bump,” he said. “It’s an entirely different downstream industry for POGOs.”

    We can’t pretend that it’s not happening, either. You see it all over the news, as police are conducting raids left and right on these sometimes gaudy, sometimes non-descript establishments that yield women trafficked from China or even Vietnam to cater to its patrons. Media has also reported several cases of kidnappings of Chinese perpetrated by their own. It’s something that Mayor Binay knows well, given that these instances have happened quite often in her city. She’s taking a road less travelled, and I’m betting that other LGUs will be thinking twice or thrice before they even follow. The lure of additional revenue might just be too strong, causing them to turn a blind eye to these shenanigans in exchange for collecting taxes. Neighboring cities will certainly benefit from Binay’s decision, as orphaned POGOs will be looking to other areas to relocate and continue operations.

    In the long run, Makati and its residents will benefit from Binay’s decision, factoring in the social cost to communities of having these businesses around. The question is, who else will follow suit, and who will remain silent to gleefully collect revenue?

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