Raising nurses’ pay: Healing the country’s ‘invisible wound’

Published May 4, 2021, 12:02 AM

by Manila Bulletin

The Philippines is the leading exporter of nurses worldwide with 85 percent of nurses trained in the Philippines working overseas, mostly in Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.  Migrant nurses contribute approximately $8 billion in remittances to the Philippine economy every year.

Despite the significant financial returns, this brain drain of world-class Filipino talent has also impaired the overall effectiveness of the country’s public health system.

In a bit of irony, the first person to administer the COVID-19 vaccine in the United Kingdom last December 2020 was a Filipina nurse, May Parsons, who has worked with the National Health Service for 24 years. Two other Filipina nurses, Charito Romano and Minnie Klepacz received the British Empire Medal (BEM) recently for their outstanding work to support their colleagues and the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several ‘push’ factors have ‘incentivized’ overseas migration. First, there is a gross mismatch: too few jobs for too many graduates. Second: low salaries — $170 monthly at home versus $3,000 to $4,000 monthly abroad. Third: superior working conditions abroad in terms of technology and career development.  Fourth:  family pressure to work abroad in quest of the proverbial greener pastures.

Last year, amid the raging pandemic, there was a vigorous protest against the ban imposed by the government on the deployment of Filipino nurses abroad — a move that the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) quickly reconsidered and reversed.

Previously, the Department of Health (DOH) launched the Nurses Assigned to Rural Service (NARS) program in an effort to provide more work opportunities while addressing the severe lack of doctors, nurses and paramedics in the countryside communities. While the Philippines’ nurse to population ratio is one for every 5,000, it was reported in 2018 that in some geographically isolated areas, the ratio could be as lopsided as one for every 20,000.

Budget Secretary Wendell Avisado disclosed in a recent forum of the Cabinet’s economic development and infrastructure development clusters that the DOH and the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) are now discussing the restructuring of the entry level pay of government nurses.  In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Philippine Nursing Act of 2002.  This law provided that the minimum base pay of nurses working in public health institutions “shall not be lower than salary grade 15” as prescribed in RA 6758, the Compensation and Classification Act of 1989.

Yet, after nearly two decades, the entry-level pay for government nurses has not been adjusted.  Now pegged at P23,877, the minimum rate for salary grade 11, it should be adjusted to at least P33,575 which is the minimum rate for salary grade 15.  In dollar terms, this translates to an increase from about less than 500 to less than 700 dollars a month.

Nurses’ migration has been described as “the Philippines’ invisible wound” — one that needs to be addressed decisively among other vital measures to heal the ailing Philippine health system at a time of pandemic