Monday, May 25, 2009

Pesky fixers at the transport agency

This is my column today.

It is my belief that there is a direct relationship between the level and extent of corruption and the number of fixers present in a particular office. Put another way, the more fixers present, the higher the level and the greater the extent of corruption in that office.

It doesn’t really take a lot of logical acrobatics to make this deduction. Fixers leverage on their personal influence and connection with the employees inside government offices in order to provide undue advantage to citizens who are duped into availing of their facilitation services. This can mean simplifying complexities in a transaction, doing away with certain requirements that citizens are unable—or find difficult—to comply with, or even reducing fees that may be subject to negotiation such as penalties and the like. In return, fixers charge “facilitation fees.”

In certain offices such as in most branches of the Land Transportation Office, some fixers even wear identification cards and are assigned the job of “reviewing” documents prior to submission to a processor. In this set-up, fixers assume the role of an assistant —an unofficial yet anointed layer in the whole government bureaucracy. Fixers with less influence with the employees of the LTO branch fend for themselves by herding people through the various steps of a transaction, acting as some sort of a process consultant. Whatever role the fixers assume in a government office, it is a foregone conclusion that their presence is not only known to the employees of that office. Their activities are conducted with the express blessings of the employees. It is quite simple - fixers won’t have anything to do if employees don’t deal with them.

The thing is, fixers are supposed to be banned from LTO offices. The agency chief, Arturo Lomibao, has on many occasions publicly denounced the activities of fixers and has repeatedly vowed to eliminate them from the agency’s offices. It is easy to prove that he has not had much success on the matter. Anyone with eyes and ears can easily verify the continued existence of fixers at LTO branches. Their continued presence is a slap on Lomibao’s face.

The employees of the agency justify the continued existence of fixers by asserting that the fixers provide invaluable assistance to harassed employees by functioning as extra hands during peak hours. This is the reason fixers are deputized as reviewers and processors of routine documents. The arrangement is not as altruistic as it is made to appear. Fixers find creative ways to fleece money from citizens. The fixers appear to be there to improve efficiency or help the agency serve citizens better, but in reality merely serve as representatives or agents of the employees in their corruption schemes.

The sad thing is that the transactions at offices like the LTO do not really require the services of a fixer such as when one is renewing a driver’s license or the registration papers of one’s vehicle. These transactions are pretty simple and can in fact be completed with a minimum of fuss. The problem is that government transactions are often perceived as hopelessly tangled up in red tape that people automatically presume that hiring a fixer would make the process easier. At the same time, most government employees are perceived to be unhelpful and uncaring and are there to make citizens’ lives difficult instead of convenient.

Anyway. What got me writing about fixers and their activities was the exasperating experience of a friend who wasn’t able to renew his driver’s license recently when he went to the Malabon Extension Office of the LTO because he refused to be a party to a corruption scheme in place in that office.

As many among us are aware, a Taxpayer’s Identification Number is now a standard requirement for a driver’s license. This requirement makes sense as people who want to be vested with the right to drive a vehicle on the road should also show proof of, at the very least, intent to comply with the most basic of all duties of citizens, which is paying taxes. However, the requirement is that applicants for renewal of a license should submit a TIN; nowhere does it say that an applicant must present a TIN ID.

Not even the Bureau of Internal Revenue requires taxpayers to present a TIN ID when paying taxes. And for working people, a TIN is a basic requirement. No employee can ever hope to get away from not having a TIN and from paying taxes because income taxes are automatically withheld from salaries. Regular employees are required to file income tax returns annually. Thus, being specifically required to submit a TIN ID to verify the veracity of one’s TIN does not make sense, particularly since there are various documents that can easily do the job. If we come to think about it, a company ID can very well take the place of a TIN ID since being employed automatically guarantees that the person already has a TIN. The requirement only makes sense if the LTO as an institution adheres to the belief that most Filipinos are dishonest and prone to declaring a false TIN on something important as a driver’s license.

But as can be expected from people with inadequate understanding of the spirit of the law, the fixers at the Malabon Extension LTO Office who have been deputized as checkers and processors of application documents can be quite intransigent, obviously because obstinacy is a good ploy to extract more money from hapless citizens. It’s a classic modus operandi— squeeze hard to produce more loot.

Unfortunately for my friend, he didn’t happen to have a TIN ID at that moment. He did have other documents such as valid residence certificates for the year 2008 and 2009 which contained his TIN. He also had a company ID that clearly identified him as an employee of a universal bank. And anyone with a functioning brain could easily surmise that my friend had been working for quite some time already (more than 25 years in fact) and could not have been employed for that long if he didn’t have a TIN. But no amount of explanation could sway a fixer out to fleece money and since my friend didn’t want to fork over bribe money, he chose not to have his license renewed instead.

But my friend, who stood his ground against corruption, is an exception. Most of us choose the easy way out by simply paying a bribe. There are those among us who justify availing of the services of fixers by saying that it is a form of job creation – at least these people are not indulging in kidnapping or stealing. I am not sure though that the corruption deals that fixers engage in can be considered any different from or less nefarious than stealing.

If we really come to think about it, another major reason why fixers continue to exist in government offices is that there is a market for their services. That means us—you and I and everyone else who choose to avail of the services of fixers instead of bearing with a little inconvenience.

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