Nurses' group urges COVID-19 task force to allow more to work abroad
In this photo taken March 13, 2020, personnel from the Quezon City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office and the City Health Department train to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
The STAR/Michael Varcas

Nurses' group urges COVID-19 task force to allow more to work abroad

(Philstar.com) - November 26, 2020 - 11:50am

MANILA, Philippines — Although the government last week lifted the deployment ban on healthcare workers, it capped the number of those allowed to leave the country at 5,000 — a number short of the 13,000 to 19,000 nurses who leave the country to work abroad yearly, a group said Thursday.

Filipino Nurses United (FNU) Secretary General Jocelyn Andamo, in an interview with ANC's "Matters of Fact", urged the government COVID-19 task force to increase the number of nurses allowed to leave the country come January 2021, emphasizing the plight of thousands of nurses who are looking to go abroad to earn more money for their families.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III last Saturday confirmed that President Rodrigo Duterte "approved the lifting of the temporary suspension of deployment of nurses and other medical workers." On November 11, he said the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) passed a resolution allowing some nurses and other medical professionals to leave the country for overseas employment which was pending Duterte's approval.

"The resolution contains provision before lifting the suspension. There is a cap, meaning we can only deploy at most 5,000 nurses or medical workers every year,” he said.

FNU is appealing to the COVID-19 task force to increase the 5,000 cap, saying that, even as the restriction is supposedly temporary, the government has not told health workers when exactly they will be allowed to leave in larger increments. 

"They didn't say anything about the deadline, they say its very temporary and we hope that they will be adjusting the number of the cap, because more nurses, many nurses, will be applying to work abroad," Andamo said. 

The Palace has said the cap may be lifted when a COVID-19 vaccine is available.

"We think the deployment ban on nurses is unnecessary if not irrational because its also totally unfair because we have...more than 200,000 nurses in the Philippines and they are just waiting to be tapped and maximized in order they can be part of this COVID-19 response," she added. 

Sen. Joel Villanueva, who chairs the Senate labor committee, noted that between 2012 to 2018, there were 148,832 nurses who passed their licensure exams. "This is more than double the total 65,108 nurses currently employed in private and public health facilities," he said, citing health department data. 

"[M]any of those applying [to work abroad] served the country with these poor work conditions and very low wages. For example, many  of our members who have applied have been job orders for decades, not only six months but for decades — 10 years, 20 years. They say that 'It's our time to have this opportunity to serve our families, to help them recover, to help them survive this unprecedented economic crisis we are all experiencing,'" Andamo said. 

Poor working conditions at home

If the government wants more nurses to stay, FNU's secretary general said, working conditions in the country need to be improved. Andamo said healthcare workers are dealing with not just the health crisis but the economic crisis induced by the pandemic as well. 

"Especially now that we still have many, many issues and problems with our profession, including the non-payment of salaries or delayed payment of salaries, inadequate benefits, non-payment of hazard pay, problem with the security of tenure," she said.  

To make matters worse, Andamo added, emergency hire nurses in the Philippines receive only three-month contracts and have no assurance that they will be hired again. 

Andamo also slammed what she called the "problem of non-protection or inadequate protection," citing some 14,000 health workers infected with COVID-19, with nurses "on top of the list" with 1,000 of them contracting the deadly virus. 

"Like, in the issue of wage, many nurses still [are still earning a] 'starving wage', receiving around only P7,000 to P10,000 every month and then when they get sick, nobody cares for them...they tell you that you're on your own. So, how could we encourage them to work [here] when they are taking the risk, putting their lives at risk, while serving in this COVID-19 pandemic but then we are left on our own?" 

Lawmakers and recruiters have repeatedly urged the government to lift the restriction on deployment before it finally did last week. 

"While we welcome this development, we will continue to push for better working conditions for our health workers," Sen. Risa Hontiveros said Tuesday, responding to Duterte's decision to lift the ban.

She also said it was unfair that some 16,000 workers under the health department's emergency hiring program have still not received their hazard pay and special risk allowance. She also flagged the number of health workers allowed to leave capped at 5,000, saying that the promises made to health workers must first be fulfilled before any restrictions are imposed on them. 

"In order to strengthen our country’s response against COVID-19 and encourage our health workers to work locally, the government must invest and allot its resources to provide a more competent salary and benefits package to ensure that their welfare is being taken cared of. Our health workers deserve better," Hontiveros said.  — Bella Perez-Rubio 

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