Exposed and Exploited: Beyond the frontlines
To this day, news of their heroism still incites a wave of inspiration within many souls. The sanitary practices that saved soldiers in the Crimean wars are still in use, years after they introduced them. At the scourge of deadly diseases and in the dawn of epidemics, they’ve always been there to care for those who needed their healing touch. They—our nurses, advocates, and teachers for health—have always been at the frontlines, constantly defying conventions and limits just to put people back on their feet.
Yet, in the Philippines, thousands of nurses come home from work tired to the bone, and for what? A measly salary barely covering expenses on the daily, split-second contracts, and a government that hardly sees the value in their art and profession. Nurses and caregivers—can they sit safely with their back to the world?
Who cares for the caregivers?
Everyday is a dance with death for workers in the medical field. Lauded as the most essential members in the world of Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), they are also one of the most overworked and undervalued. They dive headfirst to possibly fatal workplaces with nothing but an oath to serve and a profession to uphold. But are these workers being compensated appropriately for the work they’re doing, especially since their own lives and that of their families are on the line?
As a response, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Administrative Order No. 26 in March, granting “hazard pay to government personnel who physically report for work during the period of an Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) relative to the COVID-19 outbreak.” Hazard pay, as defined by the United Nations (UN), is a form of “compensation granted to staff members who have been requested to remain and report for work in duty stations where very hazardous conditions […] had taken place,” and according to this order, the amount should not exceed Php 500 a day per person.
However, several healthcare workers and organizations such as the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) have voiced that the COVID-19 hazard pay is an affront to public health workers for several reasons: it is not an added benefit with the Magna Carta of Public Health Workers; its payment is computed based on number of days not by the number of hours, resulting in an unequal total amount between nurses and office personnel; the funding is charged from the hospital’s approved budget for 2020 and is not an additional fund, therefore qualified personnel may not even receive the full Php 500 a day due to governmental budget cuts; and workers are only qualified to receive the pay if their area is under ECQ specifically, and will no longer be paid when downgraded to General Community Quarantine (GCQ).
Moreover, XU College of Nursing Instructor Jethro Noel Chu Danos M.A.N believes that “no amount will equate the risk.” He recounts a story of a nurse who died due to COVID-19 and who only received Php 60 a day as her hazard pay. “That [sic] is very frustrating that a fallen hero’s life [sic] worth 60 pesos per day,” Danos shares. “Like an ordinary meal order.” He reveals that it has been always heartbreaking to see his co-nurses die without even receiving the promised hazard pay.
“In the midst of a pandemic and health crisis, where health workers are being put at the forefront of the battle against an unseen and deadly disease, the DOH (Department of Health) and the Duterte administration have even managed to deceive, divide, and insult health workers,” proclaims AHW national president Robert Mendoza in a statement dated June 5. “We call on our fellow health workers to unite, expose and denounce the COVID-19 hazard pay and let us call for an equal and significant amount of hazard pay for all health workers both in public and private hospitals and other health facilities,” Mendoza finishes.
Going, going… home?
Recently, nurses were driven into a corner as a sort of payback to the Philippines when in fact, nobody even pays attention to their professional needs. “Everyone has the right to choose where one prefers to work,” states XU’s College of Nursing Instructor Dr. Ivy R. Go in response to the new resolution by Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). It imposed a temporary ban on the deployment of 14 medical categories, including nurses. Although Go isn’t directly affected, she has seen her co-nurses get stuck like chess pieces, unable to create their next move due to the government’s imposed checkmate.
For one, an XU alumna Donita Deang (BSN ’11) who is currently working in the United Kingdom (UK) as a nurse, also expresses her sentiments that this decision was “very unjust when no fair choices are made available to them (Philippine nurses) in our country.” To add, Deang shares the sad reality of most healthcare workers in the Philippines—the grueling demand in a constantly understaffed workplace, supposed 8-hour shifts that stretch to 12-hours, and being undervalued and underpaid despite their noble profession. “Healthcare was never a priority in the Philippines,” she adds, and it’s no wonder why Filipinos would rather work in foreign countries just to achieve their dream lives.
Imagine choosing a medical profession that you love where you can be of service to others, where you are nurtured as a worker, where equal opportunities are present, plus the security of tenure exists. That’s exactly the problem: Filipinos can only imagine, since the existing working conditions in our country is a harsh, cold slap of reality. News of friends settling for short-term contracts and receiving delayed salary (often not even getting what was promised) has made medical workers like Deang and Go yearn for change.
28 days paid annual leave, six months paid maternity leave, free healthcare and training, a good pension scheme, and support for career progression—these are among the many benefits that Filipino nurses like Deang receive in the UK. Filipinos are not exactly asking the same from the government, although the inclusion of these benefits and provisions should have been the standard. To be treated with respect and value like in other countries, substantial leave credits, better pay and working conditions, long-term employment contract—these would be the hypothetical cherries on top that Go believes would make Filipino workers stay.
Celebrated constantly as heroes, our healthcare workers won’t live off applause and praise for dinner. There hasn’t been a time in history when their services are not in demand, when their life-changing skills are never needed. “It is really a very noble profession,” Danos remarks. He says frontliners work almost as if they were disciples of God, never thinking of the prospects that come with serving. “What matters most is that we were able to touch lives, protect and save them,” he says. Why then, are these angels of mercy the subject of decades worth of exploitation, when their very life’s work exposes themselves to the deadliness of the world? What then, becomes of them beyond the frontlines?