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Offline: The invasion continues

While nobody seems to know the actual figures as new ones keep sprouting like mushrooms after a hard rain, there appears to still be a very large number of Philippine Overseas Gaming Operators or POGOs in the country.

They have, however, adopted a new tack: where previously their owners would set up shop within Metro Manila, they are now operating in cities outside the metropolis.

And just to thumb their noses at local authorities, they are registering as Filipino-owned corporations. In fact, it is the drivers, maids, and gardeners who work for the Chinese “businessmen” who appear in the registration papers with the Securities and Exchange Corporation.

This gives them an air of legitimacy, after there were growing calls in the early part of the Marcos administration to rid the country of these POGOs, which the previous Duterte regime had allowed to proliferate unabated.

Lawmakers and Cabinet officials joined local government officials in citing the dangers posed by the POGOs, which had become centers of gambling, prostitution, and even kidnapping.

Other officials, however, gave various reasons or excuses not to immediately rid the country of the pests, including one Cabinet secretary whose family owns a huge property just outside the National Capital Region which houses multiple POGO buildings. Rent earnings alone is easily in the tens if not hundreds of millions of pesos per month, so getting rid of the goose that lays golden eggs on a daily basis is difficult for the family.

Meanwhile, a large real estate organization warned that the industry would be badly crippled if all the POGOs were forced to close shop.

Opponents, however, stated the obvious dangers posed by the unregulated business. There were, they said, more reasons to rid the Philippines of POGOs than there were to allow them to continue to exist.

At the start, a large number were operating out of such high-end areas as the Makati and Ortigas business districts, and the immediate vicinity of the Mall of Asian in the Manila Bay reclamation area.

Employees would be housed either in rented condos or large residential houses in exclusive villages.

Soon enough, news reports appeared on the not-so-wholesome activities being conducted in the POGO centers.

The only good thing about the negative reports was that only Chinese workers and players of the games were involved.

What the general public was unaware of was that behind the supposedly harmless “gaming” operations were not just online casinos, but onsite gambling activities.

There were no actual gaming operations that young people enjoyed, where they would play against each other for fun.

And where quasi-legal gambling takes place, money lending and prostitution is not far behind.

Instances of Chinese kidnapping Chinese were reported regularly, with the victims usually unable to pay for loans that they availed of in the gaming sites.

Some players became so heavily in debt that they were unable to pay for rent or the salaries of their house help.

Worst of all, the police usually avoided any attempt to solve the cases. It was easy to see why. It turned out that members of the police force were moonlighting as security of the POGO operators.

The Chinese made it clear that they wanted to be left alone to take care of whatever issues were happening in their operations.

At least there were no Mafia-style killings. At least none that were made public. The scuttlebutt was that those who were indebted to the lenders were forced to pay through various means, including having their immediate family practically sold into slavery until the debts were settled.

Some of the POGOs would also hire Filipinos, but only for lowly positions. At least this gave them an air of credibility for providing employment to Pinoys. Never mind that the locals only served as security guards and maintenance crew.

After the pandemic had eased, I was able to meet a Chinese man who was involved in POGO operations. It seems he had befriended a close friend of mine, and we were invited to dinner at a Chinese restaurant in one of the buildings in the vicinity of MoA.

The first thing that struck me when I got there was that the overwhelming majority of the people in the area were young Chinese.

Out host matter-of-factly told us that yes, they were employees of the POGOs, which operated 24/7.

Our host also said that we Filipinos should not worry about the seeming Chinese “invasion,” as the operators of the gaming companies were just businessmen operating companies which were not allowed in Mainland China.

As for the tens of thousands of Chinese workers, they were boosting the local economy, he said.

They were renting houses, buying food and groceries at local markets and stores, and spending their money for local entertainment.

That last included meeting their needs, specifically for female companionship. So what was wrong with that, our host asked.

So the Chinese women working at POGOs also availed of the services of Filipino men, I asked.

Maybe, he said.

Another friend told me that she was doing business with the POGO employees. She was using her van to ferry the workers to and from their homes and places of employment. She was getting paid quite well for providing the daily transports services, she told me, then asked if the small van I own could be used for the same service.

I have to admit that I thought about it for a while. But I eventually decided that the financial rewards were not commensurate to the headaches that came with dealing with Chinese who may or may not be in the country legally.

Incidentally, besides prostitution and money laundering, gun-running was also rampant in the industry. Presumably, the firearms they get are not legal, which could mean that the amateur but talented gun makers of Danao are doing brisk business with industry players.

At this stage, calls for the removal of all POGOs seem to have died down. I’d hate to think that the government officials who used to speak loudly against POGOs have been befriended by the operators.

Perhaps they have been the recipients of POGO largesse above and beyond a simple lunch or dinner?

Or have very influential officials told them to back off for now, maybe?

Your guess is as good as mine.

They may have come to accept the POGOs as legit businesses that help the Philippine economy, but in my book they are about as welcome in my country as  another global pandemic emanating from the People’s Republic.

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