Why Health Workers in the Philippines Are Walking Off the Job

The strikes come at a time when the country is experiencing its worst coronavirus surge.
August 31, 2021, 11:25am
Philippine health workers
Health workers in protective suits demonstrate in front of a hospital in Manila on August 30. Photo: Maria Tan / AFP

Hundreds of nurses and other hospital workers are staging protests across the Philippines to demand hazard pay and other allowances they’ve earned from the government for working during the pandemic, as the country battles its deadliest surge to date.

In full hazmat suits and protective gear, dozens of them stepped out of hospitals in the capital Manila on Monday and decried the “lip service” they’ve been getting from authorities who praise them but allegedly neglect their rights, safety and welfare.

“We hate to be out here rallying when we’ve got patients to take care of,” said Edwin Pacheco, the workers’ union leader at a COVID-19 hospital in Manila, as he led half a dozen of his colleagues in a protest. “But must we kneel and beg them to give us what we are due?”

The relatively small but symbolic protests could be a sign of bigger problems as healthcare and hospital workers in the Philippines threaten to resign en masse or walk out of their facilities because the government has fallen grossly behind with official remuneration promised for front-line COVID-19 duty.

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One viral Facebook post showed a government check for 227 pesos, or roughly $4, with a caption thanking the Department of Health (DOH) for “hazard pay” punctuated by a laughter emoji. VICE World News could not independently verify the check, and the person who posted it did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The DOH said Monday that hazard pay is prorated according to the number of days a worker physically reported for work at a COVID-19 ward within a month. That amount – 227 pesos – corresponds to a single day’s work.

“That is unfair. The [hazard pay] shouldn’t be prorated because it’s not as if the virus, if you catch it, is prorated,” Robert Mendoza, national president of the activist group Alliance of Health Workers, told VICE World News.

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A health worker in protective suit demonstrates with his colleagues, calling the government to release their allowances amid rising covid-19 infections, in front of a hospital in Manila on August 30. Photo: Maria Tan / AFP

The existing policy limits a portion of health industry workers’ hazard pay to only those who have been assigned to COVID-19 wards and have direct contact with patients there. An extra layer is added when these workers physically report to their facility during a lockdown. Advocates find this unjust, Mendoza said, because all workers at a health facility risk exposure to the coronavirus whether they’re assigned to the specific ward or not, especially with the outbreak of more virulent, airborne variants of the virus.

Besides doctors and nurses, the program should also cover maintenance staff, security guards, and other non-medical personnel working at hospitals, Mendoza added.

The government, meanwhile, has used the fine print of the hazard pay scheme and a supposed lack of funds as alibis for delays in payments, according to critics. In some cases, health workers are owed as much as 87,000 pesos ($1,745) in delayed hazard pay that accumulated since late last year, according to Mendoza.

In an additional controversy, state auditors flagged some 67 billion pesos ($1.3 billion) in “deficient” DOH funds that could have been used in the pandemic response. Authorities say the issues have “mostly been resolved” or were “currently being addressed” by the DOH. They denied accusations that any money was lost to corruption.

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All this, amid an unprecedented third wave of COVID-19 infections significantly worse than the ones before. On Monday, the DOH reported a record daily caseload of 22,366. The delta variant has fueled deadly waves across Southeast Asia, with the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Myanmar all dealing with record numbers of cases and deaths in recent months.

Health workers have long been among the most overworked and underpaid in the Philippines. Many of them work a few years in a local job in order to qualify for the same position in a developed country and migrate there. This has made the Philippines one of the world’s top exporters of nurses.

Camille Emelo has had her sights set on the United States since becoming a nurse in 2010. The pandemic found her working at a hospital in Cavite province outside Manila, where she worked shifts as long as 14 hours because there were just too many COVID-19 patients and few nurses.

Despite all the grueling work, she never received any hazard pay from the government because her job description as a supervisor did not include direct contact with patients. But she has had direct contact with infected patients many times, when other nurses on her floor had fallen sick and she had to do the rounds herself.

“You end up asking yourself, ‘Is all my hard work worth it?’ With such small pay, you risk your own life and your family’s,” Emelo told VICE World News.

In a recent media briefing, a DOH spokesperson asked health workers to be patient as it worked on their demands. She explained that changing laws and policies to accommodate them is tedious.

From her new home in North Dakota, U.S., where she is waiting to start a new job as a nurse, Emelo said she didn’t understand why the Philippine government couldn’t pay its health workers properly.

“The nurses and doctors [in the Philippines] are getting really exhausted because they don’t feel that the government values them,” she said. “My friends at the hospital were crying when I left. They want to leave, too, and are just waiting for their turn to receive a call from abroad.”