The rescue of more than 1,100 workers allegedly held captive by a scam syndicate in the Philippines could place new pressure on online gambling operations, amid Senate anger.
Police and other enforcement agencies on Thursday (May 4) raided several buildings in a compound in the Clark Freeport special economic zone, freeing at least 1,162 people, including 172 Filipinos, according to media reports and police statements.
Police alleged the Colorful and Leap Group Company forced the captives to work minimum 18-hour days at the Clark Sun Valley Hub compound to scam people around the globe into supporting phoney investment schemes using cryptocurrency.
Seven Chinese nationals, four Indonesians and one Malaysian are in custody following the raid, which was triggered by information from the Indonesian government, police said.
Of the foreign workers, 423 were from Vietnam, 307 were from China and 173 from Indonesia, with several dozen from Nepal, Malaysia and Myanmar, and a handful from Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Senator Grace Poe, a former presidential candidate, responded on Monday by filing a resolution for an inquiry into the “true scale and roots of human trafficking” in the Philippines.
The inquiry would follow a recent Senate committee’s hearing that alleged Cambodian-style scam operations — in which large numbers of foreign workers are trapped in guarded compounds — exist in the Philippines, employing business methods akin to foreign-facing online gambling operators (POGOs).
“There is an urgent need to determine the supposed existence and cease the operations of these scam hubs in the country for the protection of our citizens and foreign nationals that are being victimised by this kind of human trafficking scheme,” Poe said in a statement.
The justice department on Monday said the latest Clark raid “serves as a warning to anyone who plans or continues to exploit those vulnerable to human trafficking”.
“Inter-agency collaboration clearly demonstrates that sooner or later, [the] government shall reach you and put an end to your inhumane and illegal activities,” it said in a statement.
Senator Risa Hontiveros, who was instrumental in exposing a massive immigration bribery ring in the Philippines’ largest airport that furnished POGO and illegal gaming operations, warned government agencies that they should be “at full throttle to end the massive scamming operations that put our Filipinos and fellow Asians in danger”.
“If these scam networks are using POGOs as a legal cover, we also need to blow the lid off that. We cannot tolerate such abuses and twisting of the law,” she said.
It was not immediately clear if Poe’s resolution was gaining support in the Senate, although various upper house hearings in recent years have taken an aggressive approach to the online gambling industry.
POGO licensees have been breathing a sigh of relief since the election of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who has taken a pragmatic view in supporting the online gambling industry against opponents in civic society, the Senate and the Chinese government
The Clark raid was the largest uncovering of a criminal online operation in the Philippines since 2016, when some 1,300 Chinese nationals at the nearby Fontana resort were detained in one evening for running online gambling operations.
Since then, piecemeal reports of foreign workers enslaved and traded by online gambling operators have emerged, but no crackdowns on the scale of the Clark raids have eventuated.