THE Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR) said Monday that it is suspending acceptance of applications for offshore gaming licenses pending a review of the operations of the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGO) sector.

In a mobile phone message, PAGCOR Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer Andrea D. Domingo said the suspension allows the agency “time to review and take stock of the entire POGO (sector) so that we (can) address all issues and concerns regarding this gaming product effectively.”

Ms. Domingo added that the review could last until “end of 2019.”

In a briefing in Intramuros, she said: “’Yung concern sa POGO, ’yung mga workers masyado nang marami. Nitong huli may national security concerns (The concerns over POGO include the number of workers coming here, which have recently raised national security concerns).”

She said there were only three pending applications before the freeze was announced. “If they are approved, there will be now a maximum of 61 (POGOs), then we will no longer accept applications.”

The concerns of the real estate sector, according to Ms. Domingo, will also be addressed. “They are also getting a little bit scared. If POGO stops, 15% of their total space will be left unoccupied and not earning any money.”

“We have earned P11.9 billion from [POGO] operations after only two years,” she added.

In a briefing at the Palace, the President’s Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said of Ms. Domingo’s decision: “Until the President reverses the stand of PAGCOR, that remains the policy because the President always respects heads of department and offices doing their duty.”

Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana said last week that the military is looking at the security risks of Chinese-dominated online gaming operations, raising concerns about possible espionage.

Mr. Panelo said over the weekend that he received a text message from Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua, saying: “What if we also think of your overseas Filipino workers spying on us?”

The spokesman said the message was addressed to Mr. Lorenzana.

As for the Palace’s position on Mr. Zhao’s message, Mr. Panelo said it will “not apply to us” because the OFWs went to China “for the purpose of work.”

The spokesman said the President is not concerned about the presence of Chinese POGO workers because the government has the capability to monitor them. “He is not worried because we have the intelligence capability on knowing what they are doing.”

“Moreover, the President said, countries do spy on each other,” he added.

The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) has said that as of early August, it collected P200 million worth of tax remittances from POGO companies. The BIR started collecting taxes from foreign workers employed by POGOs in early July and ordered the companies to remit withholding taxes from the workers by Aug. 10.

The government, according to Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III, foregoes revenue of about P2 billion a month for every 100,000 unregistered POGO workers that do not pay withholding tax on their earnings, or about P24 billion a year.

The Chinese embassy in Manila has expressed “grave concerns” about PAGCOR plans to relocate the industry to what a PAGCOR official called “self-contained hubs,” and raised concerns that such a move could violate the rights of Chinese citizens working in the country.

According to PAGCOR, the hubs will serve as “protection” for the workers who will retain their freedom of movement. — Arjay L. Balinbin