Our dependence on Pogos must end

The term “Pogos,” as we know, refers to Philippine offshore gaming operators. These are foreign-owned and capitalized enterprises that run online gaming operations beamed to the global market using Philippine-based service providers. Because their transactions are almost entirely conducted in Mandarin, it is generally assumed that their target clientele is gamblers from the Chinese mainland and the large overseas Chinese community.

China bans all forms of gambling on its shores and prohibits its citizens from engaging in gambling activities, whether as operators or as participants. From time to time, it discreetly asks other countries that host gambling operations catering mainly to Chinese nationals to refrain from doing so. Chinese authorities have long suspected that such operations not only serve pernicious vice; they also act as a conduit for money laundering.

Ironically, Pogos flourished particularly during the term of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose pivot to China had been very much welcomed by the latter’s leaders. Online gambling platforms previously operated in the loose regulatory environment of the Philippines’ numerous freeport zones. Hoping to rationalize this growing industry and to extract additional revenue from what initially looked like a benign economic source, the Duterte administration brought online gaming under the sole jurisdiction of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. or Pagcor. By issuing them licenses to operate, the government expected to keep them under close watch, as well as to make them pay the right taxes.

Armed with government-issued licenses, Pogos thus felt free to emerge from the shadows of far-flung export zones like the Cagayan Export Zone Authority, and to move their operations to Metro Manila and neighboring Clark, the former American air base. In this new environment, they found more varied and readily available housing, more dependable internet service, immensely better food, and, in general, more things for the overworked Pogo workers to do during their free time.

To say that this move brought immediate economic benefits would be an understatement. Indeed, what was experienced was a windfall, and this came mainly in the form of entire office and condominium buildings being snapped up for instant occupancy by Pogo employees. Homeowners in gated subdivisions could not believe that their long-idled rental houses could be leased out at unheard-of terms to these foreign companies, ostensibly for their executives.

Things started to turn sour, however, when the owners of these buildings and houses realized that their properties were being converted into crowded dormitories for young workers who had no interest in maintaining these as homes. Gated communities that prized the privacy and quiet of their neighborhoods soon found that the ruckus regularly emanating from these Pogo dormitories was something they could not easily contain.

Retail stores that initially welcomed the sight of these Chinese youths being dropped off daily from their vans to buy cigarettes, coffee, and toiletries found that they had to contend with the trail of trash they regularly left behind. Locals learned to avoid the places frequented by these guests from overseas, especially the shopping malls located in building complexes where many of them lived.

Because they hardly spoke any language other than Chinese, interaction with Filipinos tended to be kept to a minimum. This is probably just as well, since the few unavoidable encounters the locals had with the Pogo workers only served to confirm the worst prejudices they held of each other. More and more, Pogo workers learned to limit their movements to the confines of their own enclaves, and this included places where they could eat among themselves. Not unexpectedly, they soon brought their own restaurants and the rest of the support system that catered to their various needs and way of life.

The number of licensed Pogos in Metro Manila and other urban centers probably reached its peak just before the pandemic. Their growing visibility in our midst ironically served to conceal the steady entry of smaller unlicensed Pogos that were engaged not just in online gaming but also in other forms of illegal activities made possible by digital technology — including scamming.

It did not take long for the operators behind the Pogo industry to spot the vulnerability of our various regulatory agencies — starting with the immigration bureau, where the notorious “pastillas” scam exposed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros had taken root. In exchange for large sums of money, corrupt agents of the bureau facilitated the entry into the country of thousands of insufficiently documented Chinese Pogo workers. More recently, some of our police officers have been found to be renting out their services to Pogo operators to lend a semblance of legality to the abduction and detention of hundreds of recalcitrant workers.

But perhaps our biggest weakness as a nation is not so much the corruptibility of our public institutions as our inclination to tightly latch on to provisional economic lifelines until we lose the ability to find more enduring and less (socially) costly sources of revenue. No public policy illustrates this better than our country’s pathetic dependence upon and continuing promotion of overseas employment — nearly 50 years after it was adopted as an emergency measure, and long after social science research had proven its incalculable and deleterious social consequences.