A bill that would ban all offshore-facing and local online gambling in the Philippines has attracted heavyweight support amid police raids on two operations that freed 173 captive staff from at least five countries.
The draft “Anti-Online Gambling Act”, filed by Senate majority leader Joel Villanueva on September 6, grabbed headlines in the Philippines on Monday (September 19) over its attack on regulated offshore-facing online gambling operations (POGOs).
But the bill, which has gained support from other top politicians, would also shut down the nation’s nascent online gaming segment for local customers, extending a recent suspension of online cockfighting (e-sabong) to an industry-wide ban.
Villanueva’s preamble to the bill attacks the wider nexus between POGOs and “rising criminality, including prostitution, and increased threat of money laundering, among others”.
It also cites individual incidents, including the arrest of a young indebted gambler, underage gamers stealing funds from their parents, misconduct by indebted police and e-sabong-linked abductions of 34 people earlier this year.
The high rate of POGO employees among deported foreign nationals, industry kidnappings and an elevated money laundering threat amid poor regulation demands a legislative response that would “prevent further deterioration of morals and values, encourage people to work instead of relying on a game of chance, stop addiction and save lives”, the bill says.
Senate president Juan Miguel Zubiri endorsed the bill while saying that “meagre income” from the industry results in “no added benefit to our local labour force”.
Other leading political figures such as Senate minority leader Aquilino Pimintel III, Senate public services committee chair and former presidential candidate Grace Poe, and Senator Imee Marcos, sister of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, have also backed the bill.
A former supporter of the industry, Imee Marcos said she had spoken to the President last week about banning POGOs.
House of Representatives lawmaker Eduardo Villanueva, who has an evangelical background, filed a separate bill on September 7 that would also ban online gaming.
The flurry of anti-online gambling sentiment in Congress has been accentuated by the rescue last week of 173 foreigners and Filipinos from captivity in online gaming operations in Angeles City, near Clark Freeport north of Manila, and Rizal Province bordering eastern Manila.
Gambling regulator PAGCOR announced on Sunday that 133 staff were liberated from the Rizal operation, including 70 Chinese nationals, 44 Filipinos, 16 Vietnamese, two Taiwanese and one Malaysian.
PAGCOR has revoked the licence of a registered Pasig City-based POGO service provider, Crimson Tulip BPO, over the incident, which saw police, the National Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Immigration combine to shut down the operation.
The raid followed a complaint from the Chinese embassy over the illegal detention of its nationals.
On Saturday, police, PAGCOR officials and other government agencies also rescued 40 captive staff from the illegal online gambling operation in Angeles City.
PAGCOR has been an aggressive defender of the online gaming industry in the Philippines since co-opting most of the nation’s operations in 2017, despite serious levels of crime and suffering that have outraged a Chinese government whose nationals have been the main victims.
In response to the surge in political hostility to the online sector, new PAGCOR chairman Alejandro Tengco met with several law enforcement authorities on September 14, promising tough action against illegal operations in particular.
But he added that the regulated industry must also curtail illegal activity or else face punishment.
“If these kidnapping incidents and other illegal activities persist, it is clear that not only will we cancel the licenses of POGO operators, but the entire industry may be affected by whatever decision will emanate from the national government,” he said in a statement on the PAGCOR website.
“So let us help each other solve these issues the soonest.”