AS a migrant rights’ advocate, I have always been approached for advice by overseas Filipino workers and their families. I thought that I have most of the topics for discussion covered, from contract violations to trafficking in persons, and mental health as well as gender-based violence issues. Yesterday, I learned about a new threat to the welfare of our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), which caught me completely off guard. It was not in my list of pressing concerns.
The threat is online sabong.
According to Jet Fajardo, a Filipino working for the Cheonan Moyse Catholic Migrants Center in South Korea, online sabong has become a secret past time of several OFWs. The sabong or cockfight can be viewed live on Facebook, and bets can also be placed online with payments done electronically. These streamed gambling sites appear to have the imprimatur of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. , because the Pagcor logo is prominently displayed at the uppermost corner of the screen.
The prevalence of OFW participation in online sabong is such that a Filipino priest included this in his homily, to remind our workers to stay away from online gambling. In South Korea, a Filipina earned money from lending capital to online gamblers. She herself was a player, and thus came to know other gamblers that patronize these online sabong platforms. Thankfully, after a visit by members of the diocese, the loan shark/gambler reformed her ways.
Labor Attaché Resty dela Fuente, who is about to retire from the service, also flagged online gambling as an emerging concern among OFWs. He said that this vice is so difficult to stop since gambling is done in the privacy of one’s room or even just by using a mobile device. It is also too easy to access, enabling an addicted worker to gamble 24 hours a day. Though the numbers may still be low and difficult to ascertain, the seasoned labor attaché believes that more efforts should be underway to remind overseas workers about the dangers of gambling addiction.
Out of curiosity, I thought of searching for online sabong sites via Facebook, and it only took one click to see an entire list of available platforms. I could see why an OFW would find it entertaining to visit these sites, but that kind of temporary amusement can easily lead to addiction and then depression as well as financial and family problems.
According to Jet, an OFW in South Korea recently thought of committing suicide as a way out of his gambling debts. He became addicted to online sabong while forced to stay home because of the pandemic. “At first he was exhilarated every time he won. Eventually, the OFW became so addicted that he started borrowing huge sums of money just to keep on playing. Unbeknown to his family, the worker is at risk of losing his job and being deported due to his huge debts and unstable mental condition.
It does not make sense for our government, especially during a global health crisis, to rake in revenues through a gambling scheme that victimizes its own citizens. Unlike casinos, where a concerned family member can report a loved one that has become a gambling addict so that person could be physically banned from entering the premises, there is no such safeguard in online gambling. Also, sabongs are so intrinsic to our Filipino culture so that making it online would surely attract so many OFWs who are lonely and looking for a diversion from work and homesickness. In fact, one of the online gambling sites had 28,000 members while other smaller sites that cater specifically to online “sabungeros” have a built-in registration process before access to private groups is granted.
A check with PAGCOR’s website, however, holds the answer as to why E-Sabong has been allowed. “To this date, after four months of regulating the industry, PAGCOR has already collected more than a billion pesos in fees from the licensed E-Sabong operators, which is a great help in augmenting the depleting coffers of the government to aid in its efforts in the Covid-19 pandemic response.” The statement meant to remind the public to practice responsible gaming even when done online was posted last September 1.
As part of its regulatory framework, PAGCOR directs accredited online sabong operators to “strictly ensure that bets emanating from outside Philippine territory shall not be allowed and that streaming feeds for E-Sabong shall strictly be sourced live from invitational cockfighting derbies held in the Philippines and only from cock-pit arenas/venues duly licensed by local government units and registered with PAGCOR.
I strongly urge the POEA to sit down with the labor department and our labor attaches to discuss ways to prevent more OFWs from falling into the abyss of online gambling. Perhaps, there are bogus E-Sabong sites that continue to victimize our OFWs. Still, there has to be a better way for government to earn revenues without promoting E-Sabong sites for its citizens.
Susan V. Ople heads the Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute, a nonprofit organization that deals with labor and migration issues. She also represents the OFW sector in the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking.