DOLE: PH ‘not dangling nurses’ to get vaccine donations from foreign gov’ts

Michelle Abad

FRONTLINERS. Health workers at the Santa Ana Hospital in Manila on April 9, 2020.

File photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

Philippine labor officials say the intention of the talks with the foreign governments is to ensure that if more Filipino nurses are deployed, they will all be protected

The Philippine government is “not dangling” its nurses and healthcare workers to foreign governments to secure coronavirus vaccine donations, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) clarified in a press briefing on Wednesday, February 24.

Instead, DOLE officials said that they are pushing for Filipino healthcare workers, who will be deployed to the United Kingdom and Germany, to receive vaccines from the host country.

“We are not dangling our available nurses and healthcare workers for vaccines,” said DOLE spokesperson Rolly Francia. “Hindi intensyon ng department na ituring na materyal upang i-trade ang ating mga nurses para lang makakuha ng vaccine.”

(It is not our department’s intention to use our nurses as materials for trade just to get vaccines.)

DOLE issued the clarification in response to criticism over the statement of Alice Visperas, director of DOLE’s International Affairs Bureau, that the Philippines was open to lifting its deployment cap in exchange for COVID-19 vaccines from the United Kingdom and Germany.

The country relaxed its deployment ban on healthcare workers, but still limits the number of medical professionals leaving the country to 5,000 a year. In talks with the DOLE, the UK and Germany are requesting to be exempt from this cap.

Francia said the nurses-for-vaccines exchange was “not the bottom line” of the discussions. Instead, the DOLE wanted to highlight that if more healthcare workers would be deployed beyond the cap, then the host country should vaccinate them for their own protection. 

He said the possible vaccine donations surfaced during the discussions between the UK envoy and Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III.

“Considering napakagalante or generous ng pamahalaan ng UK, baka sakali – request lang naman ‘yun – kung magbibigay man sila, e ‘di dagdagan na (Considering that the UK government is very generous, if by any chance – and that was only a request – if they do give, they might as well increase it ,” Francia said, referring to the drift of that discussion.

He said any additional vaccine doses would be given to Filipino repatriates  “so that they will be capable of facing their workplaces once they are redeployed in other countries.”

Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO)-Milan Labor Attaché Corina Buñag said that at the core of the talks is the protection of Filipino nurses who will be deployed abroad amid the pandemic.

“We should just focus on the intention of the talks – they wanted nurses, but before we deploy more nurses above the limitations, we need to ensure that they will be protected,” Buñag said.

The DOLE said that there were no specifics yet on whether the nurses-for-vaccines is a hard negotiation.

The idea of seeking vaccine donations in exchange for deploying more nurses abroad did not sit well with various personalities and labor groups, including Senator Joel Villanueva, chairperson of the Senate committee on labor, employment, and human resources development.

“OFW deployment is not a barter trade. We simply do not swap people for products,” Villanueva said in a statement on Wednesday.

The senator said DOLE officials were apparently driven by “desperation” to secure COVID-19 vaccines for Filipino repatriates. He said in Filipino that if the government coronavirus task force “only did its duty, then DOLE would not be forced” to take such an approach.

“I do not question their (DOLE’s) motives but their means. They were thrown in that situation because some people dropped the ball,” Villanueva said.

The Nagkaisa Labor Coalition, for its part, said, “The dignity of our Filipino health workers are not for sale.”

“Nagkaisa calls on the government to just lift the ban on their deployment and let the czars and the emperors be held accountable for the lack of jobs and vaccines in the Philippines,” it added.

President Rodrigo Duterte earlier imposed a deployment ban on health workers due to a labor shortage amid the coronavirus pandemic. Filipino nurses sought to have it lifted to escape poor working conditions and low pay at home. 

The ban was lifted in November 2020 but the 5,000-cap was imposed in exchange.

In 2019, almost 17,000 Filipino nurses signed overseas work contracts, government data showed. –

Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer with the investigative unit of Rappler. She also covers overseas Filipinos and the rights of women and children.