Nurses wary of deal with Japan

By Fel V. Maragay
Published in the October 5, 2007 issue of the Manila Standard TODAY

THE country’s biggest nursing group yesterday remained skeptical about the benefits and advantages that the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement will bring to Filipino nurses in view of what it considers “stringent requirements” imposed by Tokyo on foreign health workers.

With the objections and reservations aired by sectors that are supposed to benefit from the bilateral accord, some senators are considering recommending a renegotiation of the agreement.

Dr. Leah Samaco Paquiz, president of the Philippine Nurses Association, criticized the requirement for Filipino nurses to undergo a six-month Japanese language course and to pass the nursing licensure examination even if they had already passed a similar examination in their home country.

Paquiz said foreign nurses in Japan get an average salary of only $1,197, much lower than the rates in the United States at $3,542, Canada at $3,255 and the United Kingdom at $2,052. Foreign nurses in Bahrain are paid a little less at $1,069.

Japan will hire an initial batch of 400 nurses and 600 caregivers. They will be treated as trainees entitled to a monthly allowance of $400, free board and lodging and free plane fare to and from Japan. But Paquiz said this is lower than the $850 monthly cost of living in Japan and $1,000 in particular in Tokyo.

The PNA president said the Filipino nurses will still be classified as trainees, even if they start working in hospitals after the language course within three years prior to their licensure test.

‘‘This is the concern of the PNA. We do not want our nurses to lose their integrity, credibility and professionalism because of this treaty,” Paquiz told a joint hearing of the Senate committee on foreign relations and committee on trade and commerce.

Edwina Beech, president of the Philippine Association of Service Exporters Inc., said the JPEPA is “not viable” because of the mandatory language training requirement.

Beech lamented that while about 80,00 Filipino entertainers were being hired by Japan on a yearly basis before, this has dwindled to a small fraction of this number due to the “erroneous” allegation that manpower exporters were engaged in trafficking of women.

Labor Undersecretary Danilo Cruz said the provisions in the agreement on the “Movement of Natural Persons” is a breakthrough because this is the first time that Japan has made a commitment for fair access of Filipino nurses, caregivers and other professionals in its services sectors that are ordinarily closed to foreign workers.

“The Japanese labor market is a very tight one and its immigration policies are very restrictive. The JPEPA allows our professionals to get a foothold in that labor market,” Cruz said.

Former Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas belied the accusation that the government team, of which she was a member, did not bargain hard to secure the best terms for Filipino health workers.

“The negotiation on the labor aspect involved 12 face-to-face encounters with our Japanese counterpart,” Sto. Tomas told the joint hearing. “The negotiation was deadlocked three times at our instance.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, chairman of the foreign relations committee, noted that Article 9 of the JPEPA does not impose a quantitative limit to the number of Filipino nurses and caregivers that Japan can hire. But, she said, there are qualitative limits “which is the source of the controversy.’’

Dave Diwa of the Fair Trade Alliance called for a renegotiation of the agreement, claiming it does not provide a real market access to skilled and semi-skilled Filipino workers.

Santiago said that may be a “definite opinion” but in effect that would be tantamount to a rejection of the treaty. She said that Japan is likely to refuse a negotiation although there are provisions in the JPEPA which both parties may continue to renegotiate after the agreement becomes effective.

Unlike in the past hearing, Santiago declined to say which side—the government or the oppositors won the fourth round of hearings.

“If I continue with my scoreboard, you may draw the conclusion that I have prejudged the case,” she told newsmen, as she pointed out that another public hearing will be held on Monday while the parties involved will be required to submit their memoranda until Oct. 23.

But Santiago expressed disgust anew with what she felt was the critical and vague presentation by the proponents of JPEPA on the benefits of the agreement.

“The problem all along is that the administration as a whole has been merely summarizing the treaty for us. They are arguing on a theoretical level on the basis of treaty provisions,” she said.

On the other hand, Santiago said the oppositors were oftentimes citing actual experiences or empirical evidence to back their assertions.

Senator Mar Roxas, chairman of the committee on trade and commerce, lamented that “the government’s presentation to the Senate was inconclusive while the gives-and-takes remain unclear.”

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