Measure lifting restrictions on foreigners in business could still make it out of 17th Congress

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Senate of the Philippines

By Charmaine A. Tadalan

A MEASURE further relaxing restrictions in Republic Act No. 7042, or the Foreign Investments Act of 1991 (FIA), could be one of the bills that could secure approval in the remaining days of the 17th Congress, Senate leaders said in separate interviews late last week.

“We’re in the process of taking in the inputs of the stakeholders when we had the hearing a few months ago. Less controversial naman ito. We will try to sponsor it when we open,” Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, author of the measure, said in a telephone interview.

The 17th Congress, currently on a Feb. 9-May 19 break for the May 13 midterm elections, has May 20-June 7 left to act on bills. Any measure that fails to make it out of the legislative mill by then will have to be filed again.

“Hopefully, kung kaya pa, we can approve it before the 17th Congress ends. But then again, if we don’t approve it, we will refile it in the 18th Congress,” Mr. Gatchalian said.

Asked if the bill has a chance to be passed by June 7, Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III replied in a mobile phone message “Yes, possible,” while Senator Aquilino L. Pimentel III, chairman of the Senate Committee on Trade, Commerce and Entrepreneurship, said in a separate text message “Best effort na lang coz mahirap mag-commit (it is difficult to commit approval).”

Mr. Gatchalian had filed Senate Bill No. 2102, seeking to amend RA 7042 by removing restrictions on foreigners from practicing their profession in the Philippines, provided Filipinos are given the same privilege in the home economies of benefitting foreign nationals.

It also proposes to reduce to 15 from the current 50 direct local hires the minimum employment requirement for small- and medium-sized domestic enterprises with 40% foreign equity with minimum paid-in capital of $100,000 that will be allowed to set up shop in the country.

Moreover, the bill proposed an annual review of the Foreign Investment Negative List — which identifies sectors, industries and economic activities reserved for Philippine nationals and those open to up to 40% foreign participation or ownership of up — that is now updated no more than once every other year.

Deputy Speaker Arthur C. Yap of Bohol’s 3rd district pressed the Senate on the “long overdue” measure, saying via text message: “I strongly urge the Senate to use the remaining session days of the 17th Congress to pass the FIA counterpart amendments because the changes there are long overdue.”

Mr. Yap authored House Bill No. 8764, counterpart of SB 2102, which the House of Representatives approved on third and final reading on Jan. 14.

“We need a shot in the arm for new investments in this changing world where technology and innovation are making it cheaper and for companies to be more mobile than ever before,” Mr. Yap explained. “Additional jobs are on the line and we want foreign investors to come and give us more opportunities for local labor and more competitive products.”

Sought for comment, British Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines Chairman Chris J. Nelson said by phone that members of his group “obviously hope this could be passed before the end of the 17th Congress.”

An adviser of the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Inc. (AmCham), in a previous House panel hearing expressed support for the measure, noting it was consistent with President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s socioeconomic agenda. “This law, if it’s legislated, along with the PSA (Public Service Act) which has been passed in the House but not yet in the Senate, would put meat on the bones of that point because, so far, since that (agenda) was released in 2016, no legislated reforms have been heard, so we encourage the Congress to continue with this and others,” AmCham Senior Advisor John D. Forbes said in an Oct. 9 joint hearing of the House committees on Economic Affairs and of Trade and Industry.

The central bank reported on Feb. 12 that foreign direct investment net inflows dropped 3.2% to $9.061 billion as of November 2018 from the $9.358 billion recorded in 2017’s counterpart 11 months.