Why many Filipino nurses leave the Philippines

By Johanna Zehender, RN

Years before COVID-19 became the threat that it is now,  there were two Job Order nurses in a government hospital in the Philippines. Both were applying to be promoted to Nurse I, a regular (permanent) position.

Nurse A listed the following as his work experience and other qualifications:

*1 year and a half as a volunteer nurse

*3 years as a Job Order nurse

*Red Cross-trained, with AHA and BLS certifications

*With an updated IV Therapy License Card; “often called to work on difficult insertion cases”

*currently with 9 Masteral units

Nurse B, on the other hand, had the following:

*1 year as a Job Order nurse

*A recommendation from a politician’s office

One afternoon, Nurse A came into the HR Head’s office.

“Good afternoon Sir!”, Nurse A greeted the HR Head.

“I would just like to inquire regarding my application for regularization…”

The HR Head proceeded to ask him if he had taken his exam and already had his interview. Nurse A answered “Yes” to both.

Nurse A then added:

“Sir, I’ve been a JO for three years now. I really hope I get promoted to regular. I really need this for my family…”

The HR Head took note of Nurse A’s name but told him, “We don’t actually look at the years of experience. If you won’t get in this time, there’s always a next time!”

Nurse A then thanked the HR Head. As he was about to leave, he passed by one of the HR’s office workers who smiled at him and said, “May the best nurse win!”

Just an hour later, another hospital employee came to visit the HR Head. This time, it was a hospital administrator.

“Good afternoon Sir, I’m here to make a follow-up for Nurse B’s application…”

Nurse A and Nurse B had both passed the Nurse I prequalifying exam. Both had also passed their interviews. But while one had more skills and experience, the other had a backer.

After a few months, the list of successful Nurse I applicants was posted. Nurse B ended up getting promoted. Nurse A, unfortunately, did not make it.

On the better side of things, Nurse A had been processing an application to work abroad in the event he wouldn’t be promoted. It was actually his third time applying for regularization, which once again turned out to be a failure. Now, he took that as a sign that he was meant for  “greener pastures” elsewhere. The moment he received word that the foreign hospital he sent his application to accepted him, Nurse A turned in his resignation and rendered service for one last month before leaving. Now that’s one less skilled nurse serving the patients in his old hospital!

However, right in the middle of his visa application and other preparations (which cost him a lot of money for the processing of his documents and other fees) Nurse A faced another dilemma: being stuck in the country because of the current deployment ban for healthcare workers. The said ban was done for the protection of all outgoing healthcare workers, to prevent them from contracting COVID-19 abroad, and at the same time, encourage them to join the current healthcare force. Well, we now have hundreds of healthcare workers here who contracted COVID-19 – with some who’ve already died!

Though the word “tale” refers to a fictional story of magical proportions, this one is based on the sad realities nurses all over the Philippines have experienced and are still experiencing even now. The “backer culture”, most especially, is an injustice practiced for so many years in the Philippine setting – it’s actually quite embarrassing! It’s embarrassing because in other countries, as long a nurse has the skills, knowledge and other necessary credentials, having a backer won’t be a prerequisite for successful employment. Now, just because it’s something that been happening all this time doesn’t mean it’s acceptable and that it should be tolerated.

Nurse A’s story is an amalgamation of all the stories I’ve read and heard from my fellow-nurses so far with a piece of my own experience as well. Yes, I was actually told “May the best nurse win” and “We don’t look at the years…”! The magic here is that regardless of how many years most Filipino nurses have served in their own land, still they remain JO’s (or contractuals). No benefits, no leave credits, no special allowances… and yet their workload is the same as those of regularized nurses. To add insult to injury, their salaries (ranging from PhP 8,000 to PhP 14,000) aren’t even enough for their daily needs and those of their loved ones. Those amounts also do nothing to compensate for the stress and hazards such nurses face at work everyday, which is why most nurses and other healthcare workers decide to work abroad – where they can have better salaries and benefits, as well as the compensation, respect and recognition they deserve.

Other Filipinos can call my fellow-nurses and other healthcare workers seeking employment abroad unpatriotic and materialistic all you want. Right now, if one would have to decide between country and family, it’s ALWAYS going to be about FAMILY. They became nurses – some against their own will and against their own dreams, to help provide a better future for their families by working abroad. Those who got tired or worn out from hospital work chose to hang up their hospital uniforms to work in call centers, banks, insurance agencies or in their own businesses…again, for THEIR FAMILIES and for themselves as well. Still we have those who truly love nursing work – despite all its pains and pressures, down to their very core. But provided that they’ll be well-compensated and protected, they’d definitely go back to healthcare without a second thought. Real talk: love and passion alone aren’t enough to fill empty stomachs.

The current deployment ban for all Filipino healthcare workers is both oppressive and stressful, and it’s unfair for both those with existing contracts and those who have been processing their applications for quite a long time. In the first place, even years before, our own healthcare system always made it hard for us nurses. It’s even harder now for those of us who’ve been preparing to work abroad, only to have their hopes and dreams destroyed. If they only felt more loved, appreciated and had the compensation and benefits to make their previous hospital jobs more bearable, they would have chosen to stay and NEVER consider working far from their loved ones, a big sacrifice on their part.

Filipino nurses have suffered long enough. Forcing our fellow-nurses to stay against their will when they are assured of better employment opportunities abroad will only add to their suffering and resentment towards the government. If the Philippine government insists on us not leaving, then we need good reasons to stay. They call us “heroes” but we are not being treated humanely.

It’s like being in a toxic relationship where the long-suffering partner has to be forced or manipulated to stay by the abusive partner who keeps on promising to change (but never does!). The Philippines never had a shortage of nurses, just a shortage of those who truly know how to value us.

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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