ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Filipino Health Workers Protest Overseas Work Restrictions

A nurses’ group has called for the government to lift a deployment ban imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nick Aspinwall
Filipino Health Workers Protest Overseas Work Restrictions

Nurses at the Tondo Medical Centre in Manila.

Credit: Flickr/DFAT

Filipino healthcare workers are protesting a government ban on them leaving the Philippines to work abroad. Recent exemptions to the policy led to confusion, in which seven nurses were prevented from departing the country after some had already boarded a plane bound for the United Kingdom.

The nonprofit Filipino Nurses United said on September 10 that healthcare workers had the right to pursue higher salaries overseas and that the Philippines would not have a shortage of nurses should it allow all healthcare professionals to work abroad.

Nurses and medical technologists in the Philippines receive the lowest salaries in Southeast Asia, according to a study by the data aggregator iPrice Group released last week. The study found that experienced nurses make only around 40,381 Philippine pesos ($831) per month.

The average monthly salary in local hospitals can be as low as 10,000 pesos, or $206, according to the country’s labor department.

Med techs make an average of 29,444 pesos ($606) per month, also by far the lowest average monthly salary in Southeast Asia, according to the study.

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But the government has banned most healthcare professionals from seeking employment abroad so they can assist in the COVID-19 response in the Philippines.

The country has recorded the most positive cases and the most deaths in Southeast Asia, with over 245,000 cases and nearly 4,000 deaths as of September 9.

Filipino nurses and healthcare workers have become an integral part of the global COVID-19 response. In the United States, immigrants from the Philippines make up at least 28 percent of the country’s 512,000 immigrant registered nurses, according to the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute.

Healthcare professionals have protested the deployment ban for months, as many Filipino families rely on financial remittances from family members working abroad.

The government announced limited exemptions to the ban on August 17, clarifying that healthcare workers with overseas employment contracts approved on or before March 8 would be allowed to leave the country.

On September 7, Rappler reported that seven Filipino nurses had been prevented from leaving for jobs in the U.K. due to confusion over the exemptions.

The group had signed contracts dated prior to March 8, but their visas were not released until July and August due to office closures during lockdowns in the Philippines.

One nurse told Rappler he was already in the plane when another nurse in the group called him and said she had been prevented from boarding. Once he put down the phone, he and three other nurses who had already boarded were told they had to disembark.

At least five of the nurses have since rebooked their flights and left for the U.K.

Senator Joel Villanueva, who chairs a Senate labor and employment committee, criticized the incident, saying it “highlights how disjointed this policy is, to the detriment of our own people.”

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Villanueva said it was “clear from the current policy that healthcare workers can leave with a contract ratified before the cut-off of March 8” and insisted that the date on which workers are granted visas was irrelevant.

Although the COVID-19 outbreak remains severe in the Philippines, Filipino Nurses United has questioned the necessity of the deployment ban. The group’s chairperson, Maristela Abenojar, told Rappler there are more than 200,000 unemployed nurses in the Philippines, while around 19,000 leave each year to work abroad.

Jocelyn Andamo, secretary-general of Filipino Nurses United, told Philippine news program Unang Hirit on September 10, “it is a nurse’s right to seek better work opportunities and better pay outside of the country especially if the government cannot give this to us.”

Philippines Secretary of Labor and Employment Silvestre Bello III said on September 8 that he wanted more nurses to be exempt from the deployment ban, adding that he had recommended the exemption cover “those who completed their papers as of August 31.”

Bello said that adjustment would only lead to about 1,200 additional healthcare workers leaving the Philippines. “Many will still be left behind,” he said. “Our medical services will not be largely dislocated, it won’t present a huge loss.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte instituted the ban on seeking employment abroad in April, but said at the time he was “OK” with the practice of exporting healthcare professionals.