MANILA, Philippines — The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) might take a second look at the ban on deployment of health workers abroad after Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. called it unconstitutional.
“A review of the temporary deployment ban abroad of medical and health professionals may be included in the agenda of the IATF meeting on Monday, April 13,” Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said yesterday. “I’m sure that the IATF will be able to resolve the issue immediately.”
Guevarra’s statement came after Locsin said on Twitter (@teddyboylocsin) that he “will fight the ban in Cabinet” because it is unconstitutional.
Locsin noted that some Filipino nurses were stopped on Friday at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) from boarding their flights back to their contracted jobs in the United Kingdom supposedly due to the deployment ban.
Guevarra, a member of the IATF, said that Locsin’s point of view is only one of the arguments that may be taken into consideration at the IATF meeting tomorrow as he emphasized that the issue is best discussed “with his colleagues in the Cabinet-level IATF.”
“I have clear legal position on this constitutional issue, but this is a matter that is best discussed or reviewed internally among us in the Cabinet, in case there is any disagreement,” he said.
Bureau of Immigration (BI) spokesperson Dana Sandoval said that they have already started implementing the deployment ban upon the directive of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).
Sandoval said they refer every encounter with departing health workers to the POEA officer-on-duty at the airport.
“We don’t have the data now because it’s the POEA that decides whether the Overseas Employment Certificate (OEC) or the POEA clearance is valid or not. We refer the matter to them whenever encountered,” she said.
The POEA recently suspended the deployment of health workers abroad “to support the national objective of controlling the spread of COVID-19” amid the spike of confirmed cases in the Philippines.
In a resolution approved on April 2, the POEA governing board temporarily suspended the deployment of medical workers while the country is under the state of public health emergency due to coronavirus disease outbreak. It was unclear if the resolution covers those with existing contracts.
But on Friday, Filipino nurses due to return to UK were reportedly offloaded from their flights.
According to one of the nurses, they were instead asked to volunteer while waiting for the ban to be lifted.
While she understands the need for medical workers in the Philippines, she expressed concern that she would be in breach of contract if she fails to return to her work in the UK.
Locsin said the government could only ban those whose education it financially supported.
“What is this? Have idiots ever heard of Constitutional right to travel, especially to get the hell out of here and get decent jobs and decent pay abroad,” he said.
He also debunked Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III’s claim that the Department of Foreign Affairs representative to the POEA governing board did not object to the resolution.
“Well I, as secretary of foreign affairs, object to it and fill up the silence of the DFA representative. I reject this abomination,” said Locsin.
“We will never surrender our constitutional right to travel and our contractual right to work where there is need for our work,” he added.
The Filipino Nurses United (FNU) and Nagkaisa Labor Coalition decried the imposition of the ban.
“Before imposing the ban, the government should have made sure that there will be just salary, security of tenure and proper working conditions for those affected,” FNU secretary general Jocelyn Andamo said.
She said there is no clear pronouncement on how the workers would be utilized on the local front.
Those with existing contract with foreign employers, she pointed out, should not be covered by the ban.
She also stressed that the answer to the shortage of manpower in the local front is the “mass hiring” of health care workers.
The Nagkaisa Labor Coalition said the labor department should lift the ban.
Nagkaisa chair Sonny Matula said the ban is tantamount to “involuntary servitude” which is prohibited in the Constitution.
“We are placing our health workers in a state of limbo or uncertainty. We cannot just ban health workers to go abroad to work when it is not clear whether the Department of Labor and Employment or Department of Health will utilize their skills or they will be hired or compensated during the temporary deployment suspension,” Matula added.
The ban, however, has the support of the Philippine Medical Association (PMA).
According to PMA president Jose Santiago, there is really a need to “temporarily restrict” the deployment of healthcare workers amid the looming domestic shortage.
“I go for some restrictions in the deployment because we need our healthcare workers now more than ever. This is a temporary situation that we are facing and Filipino patients need us. They have to serve the country first, before anything else,” he said.
In an interview, Santiago said he strongly believes that Filipino healthcare workers will not run out of opportunities abroad in the next five years or even after the COVID-19 crisis is over.
“Maybe the ban can be implemented until May or when we flatten the curve. I believe there will be more employment opportunities abroad even after COVID-19. But for now, our country needs us,” he added. – Robertzon Ramirez (The Philippine Star ) Janvic Mateo, Sheila Crisostomo