The Philippine Online Gambling Industry : Is It the Best that Asia Can Offer?

While Southeast Asian countries continue to ignore Asia’s ranking as the second largest gambling market, gambling remains illegal in their jurisdictions.

Being frontrunners in technological advancements, Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia can easily hurdle the technical challenges of regulating online gambling. Yet political will seems to be the primary factor that keeps these countries opposed to the legalization of gambling.

Can the Philippines Depict the Best Example of a Sustainable Online Gambling Industry

The Philippines can be cited as the best example of how online gambling helped a country alleviate economic stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the country still lacks the political will in making the online gambling industry a truly sustainable source of revenue for the Philippine government.

Prior to the pandemic, lawmakers passed tax reforms that more than doubled the tax imposed on offshore online gambling operators — from a previous 2% to the present 5%. Moreover, the reform also modified the tax base, from the previous gambling receipts net of customers’ winnings, to the straightforward gross gambling receipts regardless if portions thereof were actually paid out to winning players.

As a result, there is an ongoing exodus of offshore online gambling operators who have cancelled their accreditations. The cancellations starkly reduced the projected tax revenues that the country expects to collect at the end of year 2020.

Moreover, the Philippine government’s approach in adopting online gambling as an industry is ambivalent. Philippine Offshore Online Gambling Operators or POGOs as they are commonly known in the country, operate only as legal gambling businesses that can deploy their online casino games and sportsbook in neighboring foreign countries.

They are actually the operators of the Judi Online casino and betting sites patronized by Southeast Asian gamblers. However, POGOs are forbidden to give Filipino players access to their remote gaming websites, whether residing within the country or abroad. Mainly because online gambling is likewise illegal in the Philippines.

Moreover, POGO operations if allowed in the country will compete with the high-end, land-based casinos. That would be to the detriment of several major international hotel and resort companies who invested billions; convinced that the Philippines will be the next gambling Mecca for junket tours catering to wealthy Asian gamblers.

While junket tours are generally regarded as legal, Philippine lawmakers have held Congressional hearings because they were not aware of how junket tours work and how they can be prevented from becoming part of money laundering operations. Since revenue generation was the more important issue, the Congressional inquiry about junket tours all too soon quickly died.

The Philippine government continues to keep cordial alliance with the governments of neighboring countries due to economic ties. Yet the Philippines’ online gambling industry still remains vulnerable if Southeast governments persist in adopting measures that will prevent POGOs from accessing their communication networks, be they publicly or privately operated.

At worst, said governments may even consider imposing sanctions that could result in economic loss that is much greater than the economic benefits gained by the Philippine government.

Is POGO Good for The Philippine Economy?

The Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators a.k.a. POGO represents a contentious sector of the Philippines’ business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. Since 2016, when incumbent Phillippine President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office, POGO companies flourished and had fueled the growth of online gambling in the Asia Pacific Region.

The years thereafter had marked the phenomenal increase in participation among Asian gamblers in the world of online sports betting and casino gaming. It was noted that in 2017, global industry statistics reported that about 40 percent of the total bets wagered across all global betting sites, came from the Asian market.

Inasmuch as the foundations of the POGO outsourcing business are mainly gambling-related, the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR) was tasked to oversee the licensing and supervision of POGO companies. The purpose of this is to ensure that the gaming technologies, products, and gambling services offered by the POGO sector, met the global standards of fair, equitable, and responsible gambling.

Moreover, PAGCOR makes sure that the high-end land-based casino establishments of foreign investors will not suffer from stiff competition potentially posed by online gambling firms. An important licensing condition for POGO firms is to confine their outsourced gambling operations to countries outside of the Philippines.

The condition means POGO firms are barred from granting access to Filipino citizens whether residing locally or abroad, as well as to foreigners visiting the Philippines. Still, Philippine-based players are allowed to engage in online gambling, for as long as their betting or casino gaming sites are not operated by PAGCOR-licensed POGO firms.

The Magnitude of POGO Contributions in the Philippine Economy

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when President Duterte ordered a lockdown on non-essential businesses, PAGCOR did its part by suspending not only land-based casino operations but also POGO operations. However, a short while later, POGO operators made an appeal to PAGCOR Chief Andrea Domingo, to allow them to continue their foreign online gambling operations, even partially.

Margarita Gutierrez, spokesperson of the Accredited Service Providers of PAGCOR (ASPAP) had presented compelling arguments. Most of which were based on the revenues that POGO firms generate in helping the government raise funds needed, in addressing economic challenges faced by Philippine citizens during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Ms. Gutierrez argued that POGO companies are contributing as much as ₱94.7 billion per year to the country’s coffers. Aside from local taxes, which in the year 2018 and 2019, amounted to P22.40 billion, POGO firms make the following additional economic contributions:

  • ₱34 billion to PAGCOR for BPO licensing and other fees.
  • ₱9 billion to the Department of Labor and Employment for worker employment permits and other fees;
  • P16.4 billion in wages paid to local staff plus the annual rental fees for offices and worker housing provisions, as well as the cost of living expenses incurred by foreign POGO workers.

Naturally, the arguments presented by Ms. Gutierrez on behalf of POGO companies had easily convinced the Philippine government to allow partial operations during the lockdown period. PAGCOR, once again dutifully carried out its role as regulator, by enumerating restrictions and prerequisites that must be in place as conditions to granting of its approval.

Aside from implementing measures to ensure the safety of workers, and from preventing the spread of the COVID 19 disease, PAGCOR required all POGO firms to update their licensing fees and to settle outstanding tax obligations.

Compliances with monetary requirements should be supported by a certification from the Bureau of Internal Revenue.

Thanks to POGO, gamblers in countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore were furnished with online casino games during their trying lockdown period. Among the most accessed are those furnished by the 918Kiss mobile gambling platform, which features more than 30 exciting casino games, with the mega88 brand seeing the most number of application downloads.