Tearful senate testimony and mounting accusations against the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) have Philippine senators calling for action. One Taiwanese expats stories of human trafficking and forced labor took center stage on February 12, as a powerful senator contemplated shutting down the whole industry.
Lai Yu Cian appeared before a senate committee, invited by Senator Risa Hotiveros, and shared her story of being tricked into working for a POGO and being denied her freedoms. “They want me to work for 24 hours, treating me like a slave… I already told them that I wanna go home, I wanna go back to Taiwan but they forced me to work for them,” she said. “They told me that they have a protector behind them, which are government people.”
Sen. Risa Hontiveros presents 23-year-old Taiwanese who was trafficked as a POGO worker in the country. pic.twitter.com/Yssw8LHxJS
— Kat Domingo (@_katrinadomingo) February 12, 2020
The powerful government protector was identified only as Michael Yang. It’s unclear if this was the same Michael Yang who previously served as President Rodrigo Duterte’s economic adviser. “I heard about once or twice when my supervisor got mad at me, they mention Michael Yang… He didn’t explain to me. He just shouts that at me,” she said.
Hontiveros emphasized her main concern isn’t government corruption, but in protecting the victims of the industry. “Right now our main concern is the humanitarian aspect. We haven’t gone to the checking of identities,” the senator said.
Lai arrived in the Philippines on October 1, 2019, and was quickly given a job in a POGO firm, losing her passport to the employer. “I did not know that it was an illegal business here. I know nothing. The only thing I know is I wanna have a job,” she said.
Every anecdote Lai gave described a hostile work environment, with threats of repercussions if she tried to leave. “In my company, there are also Chinese nationals,” she said. “My boss tells them that if anyone goes to NBI (National Bureau of Investigation), their families in China will be in danger.”
Lai was one of the 30 east Asian rescued by a February 3 raid of a Mandaluyong POGO firm. Four Mainland Chinese nationals were arrested in the process.
To help squash these problems, Senator Hontiveros pushed for authorities to push back against illegal POGO operations, specifically those involved with human trafficking. “Many crimes are tied to POGOs: illegal recruitment, illegal detention and sexual harassment,” she said. “This has to stop.”
This comes a day after a flood of bad news for the POGO industry. Senator Joel Villanueva revealed POGOs were employing 80% foreign employees. Furthermore, a Bureau of Internal Revenue employee revealed that 50 of the 60 licensed POGOs had failed to pay their franchise tax, amounting to a PHP 50 billion ($990 million) tax bill.
Those concerns were enough for Villanueva to call for a total suspension of POGO operations. “I think the bottom line of what happened today speaks for itself,” the senator said. “Suspend all Pogo operations until we can determine how to properly regulate them. Until our government agencies get a grip on the situation.”
He added that all of the alleged illegal activity that has come to light, combined with suspicious hiring practices of POGOs, have proven the government has failed to properly regulate the industry. Kidnapping and illegal detention, like what Ms. Lai was subjected to, were singled out by the senator as examples of that failure.
The question is, will Villanueva get what he wants. Duterte has previously saved the POGO industry from shutdown by denying China’s attacks on Philippine sovereignty, saying the industry “is good for the country.” That’s hard to ague against, and it creates thousands of jobs and an economic boon for the country. But with the media and legislators finding out more about the industry’s darker side, will Duterte have to start changing his tune?