The 37k debate
There has recently been a lot of talk about what constitutes a decent living wage. This is after a Twitter post about a graduate of Ateneo de Manila University who was offered P37,000 as starting salary, but who reportedly refused it, expecting higher pay due to her educational background.
Some say that P37,000 is high for a starting salary, as many professionals are paid much less. Others point out that with the cost of living in Metro Manila, such an amount would barely cover household expenses. Some say that to expect such salaries for entry-level positions is entitlement; some point out that the issue is systemic, and that regardless of educational background or profession, all workers deserve a decent living wage. Is P37,000 a month enough to survive on, even to thrive, with savings and a margin for catastrophic expenses like hospitalization? The answer is fairly obviously no, since everyone who’s ever had to pay out of pocket for hospital expenses would know how easily these can bankrupt entire families. But whether most Filipinos, barring major disasters, should be able to survive on a single income of P37,000 nonetheless remains an area of debate.
What isn’t up for debate is the fact that many professionals earn much less. Figures differ, but professions regarded with some prestige don’t appear to have commensurate salaries. I for one would like to throw the idea of “commensurate” salary out the window — minimum wage workers need living wages just as much as other professionals do — but in a society that places a premium on higher education with the promise of a better future, the 37,000-peso debate clearly exposes that promise to be a lie. Teachers, especially those in public schools, are famously underpaid. Only recently the Alliance of Concerned Teachers Philippines reiterated its push for salary upgrading, with Salary Grade 15 (less than P37,000) advocated for Teacher 1. Those in professorial positions may fare a little better. Professors in tertiary education have come forward as having salaries not even amounting to P30,000.
The topic inevitably leads me to the compensation of our health workers. Nurses and other health personnel, proclaimed essential workers and heroes, can earn less than P11,000 a month in starting positions. Some testify to earning from P5,000 to P9,000 in provincial hospitals, with no benefits. Some colleagues in medical technology say they consider salaries of P15,000 to P18,000 already quite high. Licensed physicians pursuing specialty training lasting three to seven more years, especially those in private hospitals, often earn about P20,000 as a “stipend,” despite being essential to the operation of teaching hospitals. The situation is even worse during the pandemic, when those at the very front line of the health response have hazard pay that is minimal, or delayed, or nonexistent.
So often in the profession there persists this pernicious attitude: That those who came before went through the same compensation problems, and that the younger generation should suck it up and stop complaining. But we can no longer afford to ignore how the system exploits and abuses those at the very lowest rungs of the health care system. For instance, our country is the world’s top source of nurse professionals, but has the lowest number of nurses per capita in Southeast Asia—a clear effect of a system that consistently burdens its nurses with inadequate pay, excessive work, and minimal protection. The situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, with new problems of health worker exposure and deaths and the need for personal protective equipment, merely exposes a problem that has always been there.
The problem becomes even more odiously evident when health worker salaries are compared with those in the military, the police, and other favored positions. One remembers that Mocha Uson was granted a salary exceeding P100,000. One must also not forget President Duterte’s statement last year, directed to nurses who want higher pay: “Enter the police force. The salary is higher. If you remain a nurse outside, you only get about eight, nine, ten [thousand pesos].” It’s clearly not a problem of government being unaware of the issue, but of a steadfast refusal to invest in public health. Is P37,000 a month enough for a decent living wage in the Philippines? What a pity that many of our health professionals might never find out, as they are expected to survive on much less.
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