(Part 1 of 2)
WE may have heard of some horrific stories of abuse committed by a few Filipino nurses, but I hope we do not lose sight of the big picture.
It is important for us to appreciate the very big role our kababayan nurses play in the economic, social and cultural system of both Philippine and American societies.
To help us understand the plight of Filipino nurses, let me share with you the speech delivered by Atty. Arnedo Valera — Legal Counsel of the Philippine Nurses Association in America (PNAA) and Executive Director of the Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC). The speech was delivered at the FIRST GLOBAL SUMMIT OF FILIPINO NURSES 2014 in Manila on January 16.
Nurses without borders (Atty. Arnedo Valera’s speech)
In his State of the Union Address last year, President Obama hailed a Filipino nurse as a role model.
Obama said – in front of the most powerful men and women in the United States, the senators and members of US Congress: “We should follow the example of a New York City nurse named Menchu Sanchez. When Hurricane Sandy plunged her hospital into darkness, she wasn’t thinking about how her own home was faring…Her mind was on the 20 precious newborns in her care and the rescue plan she devised that kept them all safe.”
At that moment, Menchu represented the Filipino nurses – highly skilled, efficient, compassionate and caring. They are highly prized around the world for these outstanding qualities. They speak English, are trained in American-caliber medicine, they are hardworking, and they come from a culture where families take care of their own sick and aging relatives.
No wonder they have become a mainstay of many hospitals and nursing homes in the US and other parts of the world. They are recruited in their homeland with perks like free airfare. Some are offered thousands of dollars in bonuses to relocate.
The Big Picture
But, in reality, there’s more to this rosy picture. We also have stories of labor trafficking. Ms. Maria Socorro Reyes, (true name withheld) a nurse , found herself caught in a nightmare when she landed in jail because of unscrupulous recruiters promised her a job that is different from the contract she signed in the Philippines. After 9 months of detention in a Federal immigration facility, the Migrant Heritage Commission upon referral by the PNAA ably represented him and I was able to release her from detention. Though her story has a happy ending, it provided a glimpse into the dark chapter of the upbeat story of Filipino nurses.
Most important, I’d like to show you the bigger picture. As the Philippines has become one of the world’s biggest suppliers of health care workers, the exodus of nurses and doctors for higher-paying jobs overseas has left the country’s own health system in a state of near collapse.
As the Philippine Medical Association said in one conference paper: “The crisis in medical human resources is now upon us. The delivery of health services is being compromised. We have to address the problem before the health system completely collapses.
Let’s look back to see how this all happened. In the 1900s, Filipinos were sent to the US to be trained as nurses. They were supposed to apply their American training in the Philippines but some stayed in the US Following the post-World War II economic boom, particularly in the 1960s, waves of Filipino nurses went to America to fill in nurse shortages. In the 1970s, when martial law was declared, the government promoted labor export as a development strategy. In the turn of the 21st century, the Philippines became the United States’ single largest source of foreign nurses. Filipino nurses made up 50 percent of all foreign nurses. Today, there are 200,000 nurses of Philippine origin in the US.
Outside the US, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East emerged as popular destinations for nurses in the 1970s. In the 1990s, as a result of a shrinking market in the US, Filipino nurses, including doctors who re-trained as nurses, began to migrate to Canada, the United Kingdom, Libya, United Arab Emirates, Ireland, Singapore, Kuwait, Qatar, Japan, and Brunei.
From 1992 to 2009, the number of Filipino nurses who made an exodus to these countries reached 160,000, according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. From 2000 to 2008, the US had been replaced by Saudi Arabia as the leading destination of Filipino nurses – with an aggregate total of 53,771; and UK with 14,722; followed by the UAE, Ireland, Singapore, Kuwait, US (with only 2,104), Qatar, Taiwan, and Canada .
Today the Philippines is the largest exporter of nurses globally – roughly 25 percent of all overseas nurses worldwide. About 85 percent of employed Filipino nurses work in more than 50 countries.
Why the exodus?
Low pay, poor working conditions, and the closure of many public hospitals have forced Filipino nurses to work abroad. Filipino nurses in the US, for example, earn 15 times more than those working in the Philippines. On average, Filipino nurses working abroad earn five times higher than what the average lawyer or CEO makes back home.
This exodus has also been fueled by advanced economies’ demand for their skills. Since the 1970s, the export of human capital has served as a band-aid solution to the staggering unemployment and a major source of remittances needed to boost the country’s GDP.
Filipino nurses working abroad remit about US$1billion – or roughly P44 billion – to the Philippines every year. Along with other professionals and skilled workers in the US, they contribute nearly half of the 80 percent total remittances sent by overseas Filipinos from just 9 countries (namely, US, Canada, UK, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Italy, Germany, and Hong Kong). These remittances make up 13 percent of the Philippines’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with the total amount increasing from $20 billion in 2011 to $21 billion in 2012.
Remittances sent by overseas Filipinos keep the Philippine economy afloat. This dependence has become apparent in 2013 when super typhoon Yolanda devastated the Central Philippines. Remittances represented hope for millions of surviving families facing the challenge of rebuilding their lives. The total amount expected to be sent by Filipino nurses, other professionals and contract workers to the Philippines was expected to rise by 5.7 percent to US$26 billion by the end of 2013.
(To be continued: What can be done to help our nurses?)
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Gel Santos Relos is the anchor of TFC’s “Balitang America.” Views and opinions expressed by the author in this column are are solely those of the author and not of Asian Journal and ABS-CBN-TFC. For comments, go to www.TheFil-AmPerspective.com, https://www.facebook.com/Gel.Santos.Relos