Philippine senators angry onion-smuggling bust is too small

PHOTO: A Twitter meme illustrates the onion shortage causing Philippine senators to lash out at customs officials for small onion-smuggling busts. (adapted from Twitter)

Government officials in the Philippines are angry that the Bureau of Customs (BOC) are wasting time and resources making a big show out of busting airline crews for smuggling 15.5 kilogrammes of onions into the country. What do they want officials to be focusing on – drugs, weapons, and other contraband? No, just BIGGER onion smugglers.

The BOC came under this surprising fire for charging and “shaming” a group of airline crew members who were found attempting to sneak a stash of onions into the Philippines. The incident, which involved 10 Philippine Airlines (PAL) flight staff, caused quite a stir among senators who criticised the BOC for their handling of the situation.

According to Coconuts Philippines, the airline staff were being looked into after customs officials discovered that they were carrying “unauthorized” quantities of onions, as well as other fruits and vegetables from the Middle East when their baggage went through the mandatory customs lane.

Senators expressed outrage for the public busting of low-value smugglers when apparently there are massive onion-smuggling cartels on the loose, leading to a Philippine Senate committee hearing on this onion crisis. Senator JV Ejercito lambasted the BOC’s small bust during the hearing.

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“The PAL crew got arrested for the smuggling of onions…2 kilograms, 1 kilogram, with a value of US$100 to US$150. But we have millions worth of onions that have managed to get smuggled past us. Are we really going after this, but we let big-time cartels, smugglers, and protectors get away?”

Senator Raffy Tulfo went even further, accusing the Philippine government to be corrupt and in bed with Big Onion.

“Why did you apprehend them? Go after the big-time [ones]. Perhaps they’re always hanging out in your office. This is unacceptable… you should be ashamed of yourselves. You even humiliated the airline crew who just wanted to bring pasalubong [a Filipino tradition of bringing home gifts after travel] to their families.”

The BOC charged the airline staff with violating three customs and plant quarantine laws. They confiscated the unauthorized onions and other goods.

The incident has sparked a debate on social media under the hashtag #OnionGate. But there’s more serious reasoning behind what seems a silly debate over onions. Time magazine reports that soaring inflation has driven the cost of onions – a staple in cooking in the Philippines – up so high it is double or even triple the cost of meat.

A kilogramme of onions currently costs more than a full day’s work at minimum wage in the Philippines. Last month, officials snagged about US$671,000 of onions attempting to be smuggled into the country. The popular vegetable has made up 0.3% of the 8.1% inflation the Philippines is facing – a 14-year high.

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Neill Fronde

Neill is a journalist from the United States with 10+ years broadcasting experience and national news and magazine publications. He graduated with a degree in journalism and communications from the University of California and has been living in Thailand since 2014.