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‘Stop calling us modern heroes’: Health workers demand living wage, safer working conditions

Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center Employees Union-Alliance of Health Workers (JRMCEU-AHW) president Cristy Donguines made one thing clear in a statement: “… stop calling us modern heroes, if behind the net is our pathetic state.”

Donguines’ comment was a cry among the chorus of health workers pleading for the state and its supporters to see them also as lives worth saving.

“Historically and based on our experience, if we will not protest and assert for our [sic] rights for salary increase, benefits, security of tenure and safe working condition[s], they will not provide it voluntarily,” Donguines said.

The AHW went into detail about the harsh realities that health practitioners had to endure in the pandemic, highlighting that the benefits provided by the government barely compensated for the sacrifices made and risks they take on a daily basis.

She cited the COVID-19 Special Risk Allowance (SRA) and the Actual Hazard Duty Pay (AHDP) which were provided only to health workers who were assigned specifically to COVID-19 areas or to handle COVID-19 patients. Specifically, the ADHP only amounts to P136 a day (roughly P3,000 a month). Meanwhile, the SRA provides only a maximum of P5,000 a month, with only P227 a day. Donguines explained that these guidelines were illogical, because the virus circulates everywhere and affects even all the health workers within the facility.

She then described the whole ordeal as being “selective, d[i]visive, and deceptive, “ adding that this was an “insult to the dignity” of frontliners who are facing the brunt of a health crisis.

To amplify this call further, health workers gathered in front of the Department of Health’s (DOH) office gate last December 10, asserting their right to living wage, just benefits and compensation, security of tenure, and safe working conditions especially amid the pandemic. They then continued their protest at the gate Department of Budget and Management (DBM) four days after.

Holding their initial protest during the International Human Rights Day, they emphasized that the DOH and national government’s failure to secure the health and well-being of health workers both in public and private hospitals and other health care facilities while fighting a virulent pandemic is in itself a violation of their human rights.

“It is unfortunate that even on human rights day, we are still fighting and asserting our basic rights for living wage and just benefits for us health workers,” Donguines lamented. 

Health workers at the Department of Budget and Management office gate.
Photo from Alliance of Health Workers – AHW National / Facebook

Spared all expenses

AHW said that workers employed in local government units (LGUs) are facing even worse working conditions because they receive even lower salaries than state-run hospitals depending on the LGU’s financial capacity.

This was reported to be true with the case of the health workers at the state-run Philippine General Hospital (PGH), who are still waiting for the COVID-19 AHDP and SRA that the government had promised them six months ago.

All UP Workers Union (AUPWU) public relations officer Joselle Ebesata said that about 16,000 health workers in government hospitals and other medical facilities in the entire country have not yet received their benefits.

In response to the call to release the benefits of health workers, DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said that the benefits were currently delayed because the institution ran out of funds. This was said to be because PGH was not granted an additional budget for 2020, and all its maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) had been spent because of the pandemic.

On the other hand, health workers from private hospitals were given only a day to submit all requirements to receive ADHP and SRA, or else the extra pay allotted for them will be forfeited.

Unions from private hospitals in Metro Manila called for DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III, frequently slammed for his lax pandemic response management, to extend the deadline for the submission of requirements, saying it is impossible to prepare all necessary requirements in one day.

The health workers also pointed out that the department did not give any prior notice about the deadline or requirements necessary to receive their hazard pay. Instead, they only found out through a Powerpoint presentation.

To add to the health workers’ confusion, on December 7, DOH released Department Order 2020-0759, which supposedly provides meals and accommodation for health workers. The department order also specifies that the funds allocated for this purpose should be used before the year ends. 

The AHW appealed that the funds supposedly for meals and accommodation be instead converted into a “monetary benefit [or] allowance” for health workers. 

In a dialogue between DOH and AHW on December 16, DOH stated that President Duterte had issued an Administrative Order forbidding the monetization of such fundings. Nonetheless, DOH said that they will forward the health workers’ request for partial or full monetizations to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). 

DOH also clarified that their guidelines for SRA do not specify whom among health workers qualify for these benefits, and that it is up to the hospital management to decide and “certify” that the workers are indeed eligible. This means that they may have to justify their decisions to the Commission of Audit (COA) post-audit. 

AHW pointed that the evasive and unclear responses of DOH shows their insincerity in securing the well-being of health workers. 

“Malinaw na naghuhugas kamay palagi ang DOH sa usapin ng kagalingan at kapakanan ng mga manggagawang pangkalusugan,” AHW wrote in a statement“Malinaw pa sa sikat ng araw na hindi sinsero at walang malasakit sa kagalingan at kapakanan ng mga health workers ang DOH at ang gobyernong Duterte,” AHW added.

Follow the money

On September 14, AHW also gathered outside the House of Representatives to call for a closer scrutiny of the DOH budget for 2021, saying that the P127.77 billion allotment for the health sector from the proposed P4.506 trillion national budget goes to show that the national government does not prioritize health-related programs to properly address the national health crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

AHW president Robert Mendoza said the government should allocate at 2 trillion, or at least 10% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the health sector especially amid a health crisis.

In AHW’s statement, they also explained the implications of the budget allocation of DOH. Only 2.8 billion pesos of the increase in the 2021 proposed DOH budget is allocated to 66 DOH hospitals nationwide, which was a meager amount for the hospitals who served as the primary respondents to COVID-19 nationwide. 23 hospitals had to cut their budgets or MOOE as well.  

AHW also pointed out that there will only be 14,553 vacant permanent positions in 2021. Health workers would have to work for a 12 to 16-hour duty due to scarcity of personnel and the government’s cutting down on expenses, salaries and benefits. This, according to AHW’s statement makes the health workers’ conditions remain “pathetic and deplorable.”

Mendoza added that the health workers were disappointed because the said budget did not even allot a budget for free, mandatory and regular swab testing for all health workers, free accommodation for health workers, and hazard pay, among others.

“This administration has no care and gives no importance for us health workers who are dedicated to [serving] our patients even amidst COVID-19 pandemic,” Mendoza said.

Amendments were later made to the allocation of the 4.5 trillion budget. The P2.5 billion originally proposed by the DBM for COVID-19 vaccines were increased to P72.5 billion. 

However, only P2.5 billion is placed under DOH’s programmed funds. The remaining P70 billion is under programmed appropriations, which depends on the availability of government revenues. 

The public health sector budget, which is allocated between DOH, PhilHealth and the budget for COVID-19 vaccines is only third among the highest allocations, with P287.5 billion, in spite the national health crisis brought about by the pandemic. 

Your health for their wealth

Mendoza also lamented the government’s allotment of a bigger budget to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) whose employees had recently been involved in a corruption scandal through alleged fraudulent reimbursement schemes, the purchase of overpriced information technology equipment, and manipulation of its financial status.

“While public hospitals are reeling with big budget cuts for operations, PhilHealth, which is rampant for corruption[,’ is allotted a whooping P71 billion budget. This is many times bigger than the allotment for public hospitals nationwide. Will this not breed continuous corruption of officials, while bleeding the people dry?” Mendoza stated.

In their statement, AHW pointed out that the government’s budgeting shows their disregard in ensuring people’s rights to public health access. They added that this action indicates that the government is “hell-bent in pursuing privatization of public health services.”

It can also be remembered that last August, the daughter of fallen frontliner Ma. Theresa Cruz, shared how the PhilHealth officer in a private hospital in Taytay, Rizal denied them full compensation of hospitalization and treatment costs supposedly provided for health workers who contracted COVID-19.

This response was contrary to what was stated in PhilHealth’s press releases, wherein the agency had been in the process of releasing P30 billion worth of financial aid for clinics and hospitals, as well as promising full coverage of hospital dues for medical frontliners who acquired COVID-19. [P]

Photo from Alliance of Health Workers – AHW National / Facebook

5 comments on “‘Stop calling us modern heroes’: Health workers demand living wage, safer working conditions

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