The #Balikbayan box and the stubborn Bureau of Customs

Ryan Macasero
The #Balikbayan box and the stubborn Bureau of Customs
The bureau must learn from this experience that its uncompromising hard stance did no good

I am the kind of journalist who likes to give everyone the benefit of the doubt – and sometimes to a fault. I don’t assume, and if I don’t know something for a fact, then I really don’t know at all.

So when Bureau of Customs Commissioner (BOC) Bert Lina said he wanted to speak to clear up what he called “misinformation” in the media, I was looking forward to clearing up any possible misconceptions floating around on social media. (WATCH: Rappler Talk: Why the Bureau of Customs opens your balikbayan box

The balikbayan box issue began a week before, when the Bureau began dropping harsh words that angered Filipinos from Manila to Dubai: Follow the law. Don’t abuse privileges. Be honest. Declare what’s in your box. We must enforce the law. (READ: Don’t abuse balikbayan box privileges

Misinformation, misunderstanding?

But still, perhaps we were misunderstanding, or over-reacting? I thought. Or was something taken out of context?

When we called out to our communities on social media for questions and comments for the bureau, they came in by the hundreds. The reaction from the public should have been the red flag for the chief that someone was doing something wrong.

While the intent was to go after smugglers and those breaking the law, why was the warning issued to all OFWs, who were supposedly not the enemy? Why not address only big-time smugglers?  

Lina did say that smugglers use balikbayan boxes to ship restricted items. But what is the scale of the problem? What data did the Bureau of Customs use to justify a warning to all OFWs? It wasn’t clear to me, and should have been explained. As the talk progressed, it was no longer understood what “misinformation” the bureau wanted to clear.

OFWs are not the enemy, he said, but this meant nothing to OFWs if he would not change his antagonistic language.

Tampering and taxes

For many OFWs, if there’s one thing you shouldn’t mess with, it’s their balikbayan boxes. (READ: OFWs: Hands off our balikbayan boxes!

OFWs work for months, with few breaks, just to be able to purchase the contents of these boxes. New shoes for their kids, Vienna sausages to stock the kitchen; Spam and instant noodles, just in case. While smuggling and sending illegal items were emphasized, the fury of OFW netizens over tampering concerns was downplayed.

What to do if your box has been tampered with? “Let us know,” Lina said, giving his assurance to OFWs that their boxes would be safe.

According to Lina, the value exempted from taxes is only P10,000, so boxes would need to be inspected for items that should be taxed. But in another statement he said, “To our overseas workers, the Bureau of Customs is not increasing taxes on the balikbayan boxes.”

Only Congress could increase taxes on balikbayan boxes, he said in one interview, and implied he had no desire to push for any tax increases. But in another interview, a deputy commissioner complained how the BOC lost P600 million in tax revenues from balikbayan boxes. The message there is inconsistent. (READ: No tax increase on balikbayan boxes – Customs

Lina stood firm on his position. But he was standing on shaky ground. The commissioner returned to the helm of the embattled agency in 2015 after a 10-year absence replacing Sunny Sevilla, who resigned due to what he called “politicking” in the bureau. Sevilla replaced Ruffy Biazon, who resigned in 2013 after he was accused of misusing pork barrel funds, when he was a congressman representing Muntinlupa City.


The BOC must be aware that OFWs have little trust in their agency, and with good reason. The latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) data released in 2014 said people believed the BOC to be the most corrupt government agency. Instead of antagonizing OFWs, the BOC should first work harder to gain their trust. And this should have started with a dialogue with the OFW sector.

Lina’s media tour was a delayed reaction and did little to quell their anger. And that same evening on August 24, the President who stood by the agency’s hard stance earlier in the day – in the face of mounting social media pressure – did an about-face: no more physical inspection of balikbayan boxes. 

Under orders from the Palace, inspections would no longer be arbitrary, and inspections are to be done non-invasively only, through X-ray and K-9 examination. Should a physical inspection be necessary, it should be done under the supervision of the Overseas Welfare Worker Administration (OWWA) or a representative of an OFW organization, with CCTV monitoring. (READ: How Aquino caved to online rage vs balikbayan box rules) 

Following the order, the Bureau suddenly changed its tone. The BOC said they would ensure the “necessary checks, balances, and [make sure] witnesses are present in the event that a physical inspection is made.” That already addresses half of the concerns of OFWs. (READ: Customs heeds Aquino’s orders on balikbayan boxes

The balikbayan box fiasco could have been avoided if the bureau had only listened from the beginning, not just to superiors but to the people. 

The bureau must learn from this experience that its uncompromising hard stance did no good. In the end, it backfired. – 

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Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers social welfare for Rappler. He started at Rappler as social media producer in 2013, and later took on various roles for the company: editor for the #BalikBayan section, correspondent in Cebu, and general assignments reporter in the Visayas region. He graduated from California State University, East Bay, with a degree in international studies and a minor in political science. Outside of work, Ryan performs spoken word poetry and loves attending local music gigs. Follow him on Twitter @ryanmacasero or drop him leads for stories at