It’s ironic that Filipino healthcare workers, whose profession is synonymous with wellness, face a frail future even in prosperous Japan where doors were flung open in 2008 under the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (Jpepa) that took effect that year.
Aside from allowing the free flow of goods, services and capital between the two countries by eliminating or reducing tariffs on 95 percent of industrial and agricultural products, Jpepa facilitates the entry of Filipino labor into Japan, especially healthcare workers. But fully qualified nurses and caregivers exported there find that before they can enjoy a permanent post with wages sufficient to support families at home, they would have to take a stringent national licensure exam—in Japanese. It has proven to be the deal-breaker, or dream-crusher, for thousands of Filipino applicants. Despite the preparatory language training, very few make it. “[The applicants] said it was like studying [the course] all over again, but this time in Japanese,” Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz was once quoted in an interview.
Since 2008, 438 Filipinos have been allowed into Japan as candidate nurses or caregivers. Under Jpepa, 1,000 Filipino nurses and caregivers are to be sent to Japan to help care for its graying population. They are given three years to study for the licensure exam while working as “trainees” in hospitals and other medical facilities. Those who fail the exam are sent back to the Philippines.
In a recent move and under certain conditions Japan has extended for a year the stay of those who didn’t make it, to allow them to retake the exam. It has also allowed the use of English translations for technical terms to make the exam easier, an official Japanese source said.
Still, according to a recent report by the Inquirer’s Leila Salaverria on Filipino nurses and caregivers in Japan, this year only 9.6 percent of the candidates passed, Joyce Paulino among them. Hard work and discipline helped the 34-year-old caregiver juggle work and language studies and learn enough Japanese to pass the challenging exam. Like other passers, Paulino now has the option to stay for an unlimited period in Japan to practice her profession and earn what is easily a fortune by Philippine standards. Caregivers in that country receive P64,000 to P95,000 a month, depending on where they work; nurses earn from P66,000 to P113,000 a month.
As in the case of millions of other overseas Filipino workers, Paulino’s earnings at a facility in Tokyo provide for the needs and household expenses of parents, siblings and assorted kin in the Philippines. No wonder the Land of the Rising Sun remains among the top 10 destination countries of OFWs, with 220,882 Filipinos in Japan, per figures released by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.
But most Filipino caregivers in Japan can only aspire to be like Paulino. The deputy director of the Foreign Workers’ Affairs Division of the Employment Security Bureau, Yuko Ogino, says a key element in deciding whether to accept a candidate remains his/her proficiency in the Japanese language.
On top of the formidable language and cultural barriers, critics say Jpepa is unfair to Filipino workers in that they have to work first as trainees in Japan despite their training and experience in the Philippines. Critics also say the agreement does not commit Japan to follow international core labor standards and protection of migrant health workers’ rights.
That Japan is to start accepting nurses and caregivers from Vietnam starting in 2014 does not make it easier for Filipinos to object to unfair Jpepa provisions. In fact, Vietnam and Japan have reportedly agreed to put in place more stringent language requirements for candidate nurses and caregivers, putting Filipinos less adept in Japanese at a further disadvantage. One can only expect a leaner passing rate among the candidates.
It is clearly a far-from-ideal situation. On one hand, we need those jobs for the tens of thousands of Filipino nurses and caregivers who enter the workforce each year. The lack of jobs and decent wages continues to push them abroad where they often have to downgrade their skills to scrounge for a paycheck enough to support kin at home. On the other hand, we have to settle for crumbs, grudgingly given.
Until this country can generate enough jobs to make its people stay where they are needed, it’s a tough choice to make. And that, in any language, simply sucks.
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