By Genshen L. Espedido

THIRTY-ONE congressmen have filed a bill seeking to outlaw offshore gaming operations in the Philippines, calling the sector a social menace.

Philippine offshore gaming operators or POGOs “have increasingly become a social menace and a source of unimaginable corruption,” the lawmakers led by Manila Rep. and Minority Leader Bienvenido M. Abante, Jr. said in the explanatory note of House Bill 6700.

“It has made a mockery of our anti-money laundering, immigration and tax laws,” they said. “It has been a source of untold criminal offenses and heinous crimes related to the conduct of such operations.”

The proposed Anti-POGO Act will ban “online games of chance or sporting events via the Internet using a network and software or program, exclusively to offshore authorized players, within the Philippine territory.”

The bill will also outlaw service providers for offshore gaming operations here, the creation of POGO hubs and gaming laboratories and possession of gaming paraphernalia.

The licenses of all foreign-based operators, local gaming agents, POGOs and service providers will be revoked.

The bill comes after the government of President Rodrigo R. Duterte allowed offshore gaming operators — mostly Chinese companies that employ their own citizens — to reopen under a relaxed lockdown amid a coronavirus pandemic.

The local gaming regulator on Monday said offshore gaming operators in the country offer essential services and should be allowed to operate during the lockdown.

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 this week.

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.

“The continued operation of POGOs is a public exhibition and a confession of frustration over, and inability to properly address our pitiful national economic condition,” the lawmakers said.

Pagcor Chairwoman and Chief Executive Officer Andrea D. Domingo did not immediately reply to text and Viber messages seeking comments.

Presidential spokesman Harry L. Roque told a news briefing on Thursday government revenue from offshore gaming operations would be used in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What’s important is the P1 billion monthly revenue from POGOs will go to our anti-COVID-19 efforts,” he said in Filipino. Offshore gaming companies here employ about 35,000 Filipinos, he added.

President 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 10,000 and killed at least 685 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. — with Gillian M. Cortez