By Gillian M. Cortez, Reporter
and Genshen L. Espedido

THE LOCAL gaming regulator on Monday said offshore gaming operators in the country — mostly Chinese companies that employ their own citizens — offer essential services and should be allowed to operate during the lockdown in Luzon amid a coronavirus pandemic.

The government would let them reopen provided they have paid their tax liabilities, Diane Erica Jogno, a senior offshore gaming officer at the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp., (Pagcor) said at a news briefing.

The country’s anti-coronavirus task force allowed offshore gaming operations here, mostly based in Metro Manila, to reopen with up to 30% of their workforce after they were classified as part of the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector.

But the IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines said at the weekend Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGO) are not business process outsourcing companies, which are licensed by the Philippine Economic Zone Authority. POGOs are under Pagcor.

Ms. Jogno said POGOs normally enlist support system service workers, who are allowed to operate during the quarantine period.

The other POGO components — players and operators — are usually overseas, she said.

Support service workers “provide customer service, support and business development functions, among other things, for their operators,” Ms. Jogno said.

Only offshore gaming operators with a certificate from the Bureau of Internal Revenue will be allowed to reopen, she added.

The local gaming regulator collected P5.73 billion in regulatory and other fees from POGOs last year and P1.8 billion last quarter.

Operators should settle their tax liabilities first before being allowed to reopen, Party-List Rep. Ronnie L. Ong told BusinessWorld in a Viber message on Sunday.

“I am for the reopening of POGOs but they must be required to pay taxes first,” said Mr. Ong, who is also vice chairman of the House committee on games and amusements.

He said the government should monitor tax payments by POGOs through gaming employment license identifications issued by Pagcor.

Their workers must also have a tax identification number, a Bureau of Immigration and Deportation number, must go through cultural lessons on how to act and behave in the Philippines and submit a clearance that they are COVID-19-free., Mr. Ong said.

House Bill 5267, which is pending on second reading approval, requires offshore gaming operators to pay a 5% tax on gross receipts.

Foreign employees working for POGOs are also presumed to earn at least P600,000 yearly and must pay a 25% tax on their salaries, wages, annuities, compensation, remuneration, honoraria and allowances.

Albay Rep. and House ways and means committee chairman Jose Maria Clemente S. Salceda asked the Senate to adopt the House bill.

“The Senate can adopt my committee’s reform when it resumes session, if we want to increase the tax take from POGOs,” he said in a statement on Sunday. “In the meantime, let’s get them to settle their liabilities, and if they can comply with minimum health standards, we can consider reopening them.”

President Rodrigo R. Duterte on March 17 locked down the entire Luzon island, suspending work, classes and public transportation to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has sickened more than 9,000 and killed at least 623 people in the Philippines.

People should stay home except to buy food and other basic items, he said.

Mr. Duterte relaxed the lockdown for some areas of the island starting May 1 and extended the so-called enhanced community quarantine for Metro Manila, some cities and provinces until May 15.