Abused before our eyes
When I was a student, I really thought nursing was a prestigious profession,” a friend confided. “But the reality of it hit me so hard.”
We were talking about the experience of being a nurse in the Philippines, in light of the recent petition to raise their wages—a petition which the government’s chief lawyer argued against. The government’s position was an immense letdown. Filipino nurses have long asserted that they are overworked and underpaid, but even that may be an understatement. Some of their work experiences are tantamount to abuse, and these are not anomalies in the profession—they’re the norm.
Take, for instance, the common practice of hospitals taking in “volunteer nurses.” While this is touted to be a venue for further training, the real-world practice is regarded as a thinly veiled form of exploitation.
Nurses, especially those without professional experience just yet, are compelled to work at hospitals for a measly pay, or often without pay at all, in the name of “training.” Some even report having to shell out money to get in a training program. The goal for many of these volunteer nurses is to get formally hired, but they typically wait months or years before they get that opportunity. Some end up quitting due to unpaid exhaustion.
“Both public and private hospitals continue the practice of taking in ‘nurse volunteers’ to fill staffing gaps,” noted a Philippine study in the International Nursing Review. In 2011, the Department of Health (DOH) issued a memo ordering a stop to such nurse volunteer programs, but that directive apparently did not go beyond being a promise on paper.
Alongside volunteer nurses are the contractual nurses, who constantly fear the end and nonrenewal of their contracts while clinging for years to the faint hope of their regularization. Just last year, these nurses felt the vulnerability of their positions when the threat of DOH budget cuts loomed for 2019. Thankfully, the department’s funds were restored—a temporary sigh of relief, though not an answer to the nurses’ call for more plantilla positions in the healthcare industry.
For nurses who are eyeing more secure, regular positions in our government hospitals, several of my nurse friends have a grim advice: If you have no “backer,” you better not hope at all. The so-called “backer system” or “palakasan system” is a culture of patronage that’s sadly rampant in government healthcare institutions, hindering quality nurses from advancing in their careers. A newbie with a “backer” could get hired and promoted much sooner than a more experienced colleague—and the latter would have to withstand another eternity of 16-hour shifts without their deserved compensation and job security.
The questionable volunteer programs, the persisting contractual limbo and the unethical patronage systems are only some of the ways our nurses are trampled upon in their industry. On top of these are the inhumanly long and grueling shifts, the emotional abuse from doctors and patients alike, and, yes, the disheartening wages.
Again, these have become the norm for Philippine nurses. The knowledge that our healthcare professionals are constantly subjected to these unjust conditions should prompt us to stand behind them—the same way we support our servicemen, police force, teachers and other workers.
A wage increase for our nurses could, at the very least, relieve some of the distress they have to endure, if not properly compensate them for it. But beyond bigger salaries, Philippine nurses are in dire need of more equitable labor systems and enforced labor protections.
A welcome example was the recent adjustment of the Continuing Professional Development Law, which now mandates less of the costly requisites for professional license renewals. It means that nurses, among other professionals, would no longer have to burn holes in their pockets paying for extraneous trainings and seminars just to renew their license.
Concrete developments like this are needed, particularly in terms of nurse hiring and regularization practices, as well as in the abusive work environments around healthcare professionals. A pay hike would be a start, but there are more areas to improve if we are to motivate our nurses to stay and serve Filipinos—and, more than that, if we are to finally treat our nurses the way they deserve to be treated.
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