Organize to survive, health expert advises Pinoy nurses

by MARLENE H. ELMENZO
www.ofwjournalism.net

MAKATI CITY–HAVING a collective voice may save the jobs of Filipino nurses threatened to be sucked into the fiscal hole of the United Kingdom’s public health system, a health management expert recommends.

Filipino nurses who wish to stay longer in UK should make the NHS (National Health Service Trusts in the UK) realize their impact on that country’s health sector, Dr. Eufemia Yap of the Ateneo Graduate School of Business told the OFW Journalism Consortium.

“They should address this with a collective voice,” the school’s health unit director said. “They need to tell the NHS: ‘Hey, we are important players here.’”

Yap was responding to questions on what Filipinos could do a month after UK Health Minister Lord Warner of Brockley in July announced the removal of nursing from the “national shortage occupation list”.

With this new policy, job openings for nurses will first be advertised to British nationals and Europeans. Foreigners would only be considered for recruitment if there would be no qualified candidates from the European workforce.

The same rule applies for foreigners currently employed under work permits: they would be given the last priority for hiring.

“Taking nursing off the shortage list does not stop employers undertaking international recruitment, it only means that they have to demonstrate that they cannot fill a post with a UK or EEA [European Economic Area] applicant first,” a July 3, 2006 statement from the health department said.

“If employers are unable to fill a particular nursing post following advertisement, they may then apply to the Home Office for a work permit,” it added.

Currently the largest health care services system in Europe, the NHS is subdivided into smaller organizations called Trusts. Apart from overseeing hospital operations in every county or province in the UK, an NHS Trust also manages recruitment of doctors, nurses, health workers and non-medical staff.

In this system works some 40,000 Filipino nurses, half of who have no residence visa and would have to leave the UK upon expiration of their work permits, as the new policy mandates.

According to the policy, posts held by these foreign workers would be offered first to locals.

No return

ACCORDING to Yap, in this situation, it is best for nurses to rely upon themselves because the Philippine government, which remains divided on the issue of health worker migration, could only do so much.

On the one hand, she said, is the Department of Health, which makes do with the limited healthcare workforce in the country. On the other is the Department of Labor and Employment, which continuously manages the export of the country’s best and brightest.

Filipino nurses, Yap said, also need to solve their problem by making themselves more competitive.

“They should challenge themselves and reshape themselves as nursing professionals,” she said. “They can do this by continuing their professional education and taking in leadership roles.”

Ateneo, to note, has the only business school that offers hospital management degree courses to health sector professionals.

“Packaging themselves well” will also help nurses to demand for better opportunities should they decide to settle in the Philippines, Yap said.

Nurses who really don’t want to return to the country, however, must start seeking other opportunities in the Middle East or in the US, and consider possible “trade-offs”, she added.

“They may be employed in other countries [even though] the work condition is not as good as that in UK’s.”

Nurses like Riza Franco who works in Queen Alexandra Hospital, Portsmouth, Scotland, are bracing for an extreme scenario: the narrowing of the market for foreign health workers.

“There’re a lot of opportunities,” she said. “Australia alone is offering immigrant visa. It offers better compensation packages.”

Still, Franco, 31, says she’s not that worried since she has an “indefinite leave to remain” (permanent residence) visa.

Except for the right to vote, the visa entitles Franco to the rights enjoyed by the British.

“I am already a resident here so I am not under a contract anymore. I can work anywhere and as long as I want to.”

Trusts

FRANCO’S resilience is understandable since her family in the Philippines relies on the financial support she extends.

Franco sends money to get her two younger sisters through college, said Mary, one of her sisters. Sometimes she also sends money to her elder brother whose daughter suffers from a rare disease in the nervous system.

Above all, she sends money for the three-year-old daughter she left behind.

Mary said the Franco family would be deeply affected if Riza loses her job.

But she said she’s confident her sister can survive any trial that comes her way.

“Maabilidad si Ate [My sister’s resourceful],” Mary said. “She’s always on her toes.”

Franco, who was interviewed via the Internet, said she’s always keeping her ears on the ground.

She said she has heard from fellow Filipinos news of cost-cutting measures like forced retirement and closure of smaller hospitals or hospital units or departments.

Geraldine Marquez, 36, a Filipino nurse working at the Bucknall Hospital, in Stoke-on-Trent, shared one news.

Marquez cited that Bucknall has stopped hiring relievers and extra staff to ease workload and closed down one of its four wards. Bucknall is under the North Staffordshire Combined Health Care NHS Trust.

Franco alleged that around 250 jobs have been lost last August in the Portsmouth Trust where Queen Alexandra belongs.

However, Franco and Marquez said they haven’t heard that Filipinos were included in these job reductions or affected by the hiring freeze.

The OFW Journalism Consortium tried almost every week of August to verify these information with Paul Cortes of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

However, the office of Cortes said the British Desk director remained “unavailable for comments”.

A press release last July said the Philippine labor office in London “has not yet received any report from a Filipino nurse losing his or her job”.

Still, the DFA admitted “that some NHS Hospitals are experiencing budgetary problems” and “a few hospitals have announced they will undertake cost-cutting measures and redundancy”.

The press release was issued in July.

However, both Franco and Marquez told the OFW Journalism Consortium that the recruitment freeze in their respective hospitals has been implemented since August.

Worries

MARQUEZ said her fellow Filipinos who don’t have residence visas have started worrying.

“We all want to be secured when it comes to our job, lalo na’t nasa ibang bansa tayo [especially since we’re in another country].”

Marquez has been working under a “Leave to Remain” visa for two years.

She said her marriage to her British husband a month before the new policy was announced became providential in a sense: her visa expires two years from now.

At the moment, Marquez said she’s staying put. She has no plan of either coming back to the Philippines or transferring to another country since she will soon give birth to her first child.

Marquez said she expects the employment freeze will last long.

“Matatagalan pa bago mag-hire ulit [It would take long before hospitals resume hiring foreign nurses],” she surmises.

The Philippines has been one of the major sources of foreign nurses in the UK when the British government expanded the workforce in the health sector nine years ago.

“I’ll cross the bridge when I get there,” Marquez said if the worse scenario of losing her job becomes real.

On the other hand, Franco, who spent the past four years working in the UK, believes the hiring freeze is temporary.

Replacing foreign worker with homegrown talent to fill up workforce and save costs would not do well for the nurses and the health sector, she said.

“Whether they [British government officials] like it or not, kailangan nila ng mga [they would need foreign] nurses.”

However, Lord Warner was quoted in the health department statement as saying that the NHS is now moving to “a closer match between demand and supply”.

“We now have more than 379,000 qualified nurses working in the NHS, 82,000 more than in 1997 as well as record levels of nurses in training,” he said.

Lord Warner hinted that large-scale international nurse recruitment across the NHS would soon be over since this “was only ever intended to be a short-term measure”. “The aim of the NHS has always been to look towards home-grown staff in the first instance and have a diverse workforce that reflects local communities.”

Three years ago, however, a study by the Royal College of Nursing titled “Here to Stay” noted that with an increasing number of foreign nurses in the UK, “overseas recruitment of nurses is no longer viewed as a stop-gap measure by the NHS”.

The attraction of the UK for Filipino nurses is the minimum monthly salary of ₤1,017 (P95,587.83 at P93.99=₤1), according to a document “Host Country Legislated Minimum Wages” by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.

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OFW Journalism Consortium