The failure of the #balikbayanbox warning

Analiza Perez-amurao

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'This recent BOC debacle reveals the shallow understanding of and appreciation for the country’s modern-day heroes'

Beyond the smuggling issue claimed by the Bureau of Customs (BOC) allegedly linked to the balikbayan boxes sent by overseas Filipino workers to their loved ones in the Philippines, why has the BOC’s infamous announcement on August 19 left a bitter taste in the mouths of many OFWs?

Given a certain degree of logic behind BOC’s intention, why has it failed in its latest attempt at justifying its warning to scores of Filipinos across the globe?

Part of the celebration

In as much as many Filipinos back home are now looking forward to the approach of the so-called “ber” months, a much-anticipated prelude to the Christmas season, OFWs, despite being far away, are very much a part of the celebrations.

Balikbayan boxes are transnational displays of love and affection.

To them, this is the only way to make themselves part of the celebration no matter how mundane and impersonal the act seems to others.

While many OFWs do not just send packages during Christmas, sending a balikbayan box back home, nevertheless, has always been symbolic of most migrant workers’ desire to be a part of special moments that they know will never happen. Reality forces them to be somewhere else to make sure that there is food on the table in their own homes.

A landmark study by Rachel Salazar Parreñas on familial expressions of intimacy and affection across distances shows how families, more often parents and left-behind children, try to cope with the separation just to ensure continued familiarity with each other even when apart.

Given the current situation, sending balikbayan boxes to one’s country of origin is one of these very real and apt examples.

Boxes of love

If you really think about it, the contents of balikbayan boxes do not bear much of a difference from what can be found in big supermarkets in the Philippines.

They often send items like Spam, lotion, shampoo, bars of soap, pasta, other grocery items and personal effects.

It’s not about the items, but the thought put into them.

Given the all-time high personal remittances sent by OFWs – $26.93 billion in 2014 – that helped support the Philippine economy, how does the government reciprocate? With the balikbayan box warning, of course.

This recent BOC debacle reveals that the Philippines’ shallow understanding of and appreciation for the country’s OFWs – or what they call our “modern day heroes.”

Amidst all the bilateral agreements and various state-to-state talks, the BOC’s imposition of tighter rules displays complete ignorance of the fact that the often taken for granted balikbayan boxes are the OFWs’ way of making up for lost time with their loved ones.

NJ Abad, an OFW toiling in Saudi Arabia, recently talked to me about the sacrifices he needed to make in order to send balikbayan boxes to his family in the Philippines.

“When I pack my balikbayan box, I want to optimize all the available space,” he said. “It may be heavy and tight but it is good for transport.”

He added: “It is also a good way to protect the box from pilferage. I always find it fulfilling if I packed my balikbayan box well. Add to that is the difficulty of packing the things one by one, layer by layer, making sure there will be no spillages or breakages.”

‘Change of heart’ 

Inundated with complaints towards the advisory from OFWs across the globe, President Benigno Aquino III, after meeting with Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima and Bureau of Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina, eventually rescinded the order. They are now dancing to a totally different tune. The government claims to have a “change of heart” for the OFWs’ sake, a far cry from BOC’s drastic statement a few days ago.

Whatever reasons the government has for revoking the repressive warning, it was a political move, no matter how hard the chief claims that the Bureau is simply trying to do its job.

Haron Coronica, an OFW working as a teacher in Bangkok, Thailand, expressed his dismay over the balikbayan box issue. Coronica maintains that while he admires the President, he actually found the reversal of the policy to be nothing but a “political circus.”

The beans have already been spilled.

I hope that come May 2016, the migrant workers hit by this circus will not forget about the balikbayan box fiasco. 

But I wonder, are physical inspections gone for good or just for now? More importantly, questions on whether the Filipino family and issues that are close to them really matter to the State, have once again loomed over every OFW’s head. But given that the State itself fails to recognize how important these boxes are in maintaining family relationships, near and far, how can the people forget? 

Quo vadis, migranteng Pilipino? – 

Analiza Perez-Amurao is a Senior Lecturer and Asst Program Director from Mahidol University International College (MUIC) and a PhD in Multicultural Studies candidate from the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia (RILCA)- Mahidol University in Thailand, where she specializes in migration studies. Her current research examines the challenges and difficulties of Filipino educators in Bangkok, for which she got a funding from the Southeast Asian Regional Exchange Program (SEASREP), Toyota Foundation and Asian Center- Japan Foundation to present preliminary findings in Indonesia late this year. An earlier version of this article appears in her blog. Follow her tweets at @analiza_amurao.


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