MANILA -- In the new world the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) ushered in, healthcare and essential workers risk their lives serving as the country’s first line of defense against the invisible and potentially deadly enemy.
Sadly, the Philippines’ frontlines are dwindling. As of August 30, the Department of Health (DOH) reported that at least 6,932 medical workers had contracted SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory ailment COVID-19. Of that number, 40 died.
To preserve the country’s medical force, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration temporarily suspended the deployment of all medical workers abroad to "prioritize human resource allocation for the national health care system at the time of the national state of emergency.”
Filipino Nurses United, however, denounced the ban, saying the government should not prevent health workers from choosing more favorable opportunities overseas — once again putting a spotlight on the plight of Filipino health professionals who had long been pleading for higher pay and better contract terms.
This clamor is not without reason. In March, netizens criticized the DOH after it called for health care workers to join the battle against COVID-19 as volunteers, with a mere daily allowance of P500, instead of properly hiring them and providing them with tenure and benefits.
While all health workers across the world are likewise dealing with the wrath of the pandemic, Isabelle Romualdez, i-Price Group marketing content executive, said the income of frontline workers in the Philippines is significantly lower compared to their Southeast Asian colleagues.
The information aggregator studied the wage gap among seven countries (Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Philippines), as well as analyzed their earnings vis-a-vis the rise of online spending.
Using the economic research institute-powered company Salary Expert, the i-Price Group revealed mid-level registered nurses in the Philippines earn P40,380 a month or P233 an hour — the lowest figure among the mentioned ASEAN countries. In fact, the income of Filipino nurses is 57 percent lower than their peers in Vietnam, the second lowest paying country in the region, who make an estimated P63,232 every month or P365 an hour.
The wage gap further widens when compared to Hong Kong and Singapore, which compensate their health workers the highest. Hong Kong nurses get about P274,811 a month or P1,584 per hour, while Singaporean nurses make P236,427 every month or P1,346 an hour.
Although the cost of living in both countries is no doubt more expensive, the pay of nurses in the Philippines still visibly trails behind when measured against its neighbors with a similar expense range. Malaysian, Thai, and Indonesian registered nurses, for example, earned about 140 percent, 104 percent, and 95 percent more than their Filipino counterparts respectively.
Nurses in Malaysia receive P96,849 a month or P558 an hour; those in Thailand get P82,547 a month or P474 an hour; while those in Indonesia are paid P78,759 month or P454 an hour.
The results of study, however, were based on the fees of experienced nurses. Most entry-level and untenured professionals in the country unfortunately earn far less.
In July, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) announced the pay of nurses in public hospitals and health institutions will be raised to a Salary Grade (SG) 15 amounting to P32,053 to P34,801 in compliance of Section 32 of Republic Act No. 9173 or Philippine Nursing Act of 2002.
Prior to the Circular No. 2020-4 issued by DBM, entry-level nurses in state-run institutions were only paid around P22,316 to P24,391 per month. This was after their wage was adjusted under the Salary Standardization Law (SSL) which increased the payroll of certain government personnel at the beginning of the year.
The pay hike, however, is not applicable to nurses employed in the private sector where entry-level nurses make an average of P10,000 a month, the Department of Labor and Employment’s Bureau of Local Employment reported.
Despite their low compensation, DOH’s data suggests nurses are the most susceptible of being infected by the coronavirus. Among all the healthcare workers, registered nurses tallied the highest number of COVID-19 cases. To date, at least 2,401 nurses have gotten sick, of which, 6 were fatal.
Although medical technologists or clinical laboratory scientists do not get the lion’s share when it comes to public recognition, their role is vital in accurately diagnosing diseases (including COVID-19), monitoring its progression, administering the right treatment, and evaluating its effectiveness.
While patients rely on doctors to treat their ailments, physicians depend on these lab scientists to provide them with the accurate and reliable results needed to make the best clinical judgement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 70 percent of today’s medical decisions depend on the test results the licensed professionals provide. The health institute added that 40,000 to 80,000 deaths annually could have been prevented had they been diagnosed correctly.
At present, DOH said at least 304 medical technologists had been infected by COVID-19.
Although their nature of work is highly risky since they have direct contact to highly contagious specimens, such as SARS-CoV-2, their compensation remains relatively low.
According to the i-Price Group, mid-level medical technologists earn around P29,444 a month or an hourly rate of P 170 -- the lowest in the region.
Compared to Hong Kong and Singapore, the countries at the other end of the scale, there is a large disparity of 646 percent and 612 percent respectively.
Laboratory scientists in Hong Kong make 219,728 a month or P1,271 per hour, while those in Singapore receive P209,660 a month or P1,205 per hour.
As mentioned earlier, although the aforementioned countries have a larger cost of living, the gap remains significantly stretched even when compared to the nations with a similar living expense. The study revealed Indonesian, Thai, and Malaysian laboratory professionals earn 112 percent, 121 percent, and 178 percent higher than their Filipino peers.
According to the report, Indonesian med techs are paid P62,674 a month or P362 per hour, while Thais make 65,178.58 a month or P376 pert hour, and Malaysians get P81,977 a month or P 477 per hour.
In fact, the wage of medical technologists in Vietnam, the ASEAN nation with the closest salary to the Philippines, is still 97 percent higher as Vietnamese professionals receive around P56,598 a month or P327 per hour.
Similar to Filipino nurses before the wage hike, entry-level medical technologists who report to government institutions get a monthly rate of P22,316 to P24,391 (SG 11).
Some of their counterparts who work in the private sector, however, earn a much meager income.
“I used to work in a tertiary private hospital in QC and I only earned P606 a day. That is why healthcare workers are happy if we get employed by the government,” a 26-year old licensed medical technologist, who chose to keep his name private, said.
He continued: “When I was in a private hospital my pay was around P13,000 to P16,000 and I didn’t have hazard pay. Now that I work at a government hospital, I earn around P20,000 a month, have hazard pay, and benefits. But to be honest, kulang pa rin kaya mas gusto na namin mag-abroad.”
The licensed professional shared that although he had been enduring 16-hour straight shifts and additional workload due to the onslaught of the pandemic, his payroll has not changed.
“Because we are overworked some of my colleagues resigned while others tested positive for the virus. As a consequence of that, nagkukulang 'yung manpower. Bibigat 'yung trabaho pero 'yung sahod ganun pa rin, mababa,” he explained.
Noting that the nurses pay grade had been increased, the med tech admitted he and his colleagues are hoping to receive the same benefit in the near future.
“Naiwan kami,” he said. “We are not seen because we are working in labs. People think we just get blood but that is not the case — we are trained to swab COVID suspects. Kami nagbabasa sa microscope ng dugo, ihi, plema, dumi at iba pang body fluids… we hold the information needed to make a diagnosis in our hands.”
Healthcare workers, however, are not the only heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new normal has also highlighted how much the country depends on essential workers such as grocery clerks, delivery personnel, and warehouse staff, to keep the nation afloat.
Some of the essential workers risk exposing themselves to the coronavirus, to keep providing Filipinos food, medicine, toiletries and other necessary goods; while others put their lives on the line to help the public comply with the appeal of medical workers for citizens to stay home and curb the spread of COVID-19.
According to the data, although most essential workers in the Philippines earn more than their peers in Vietnam, they are still at the bottom of the scale.
“This does not put these Filipino employees at a comfortable spot,” Romualdez emphasized.
Based on the information collected by the research firm, supermarket stock clerks only make an average of P13,375 a month or an hourly rate of P 77, security guards get P15,490 or P 89 an hour, while warehouse workers receive P14,587 or P84 per hour, and delivery truck driver helpers earn P23,341 a month or P 135 an hour.
“Looking at countries with similar costs of living, non-healthcare Filipino frontliners still don’t earn as much,” Romualdez said.
For instance, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Thai supermarket stock clerks are paid 174 percent, 108 percent, 106 percent more than their Filipino counterparts.
Security guards in Malaysia, on the other hand, earn 173 percent more than their Filipino peers, while Indonesians and Thais both receive 107 more.
Meanwhile, Malaysian delivery truck helpers are paid 174 percent more, and both Thais and Indonesians get about 107 percent more.
DO THEY MAKE ENOUGH?
According to Philippine Statistics Authority’s Family Income and Expenditure Survey in 2018, the average household expenditure of Filipinos is P238,641 or P19,886 per month.
“Given this amount and the average salaries recorded by iPrice, we can see how many of our frontliners may struggle to make ends meet while risking their lives. They certainly deserve more than a day of appreciation,” Romualdez admonished.
Since numerous shoppers have turned to the internet for their retail needs amid the pandemic, the research firm studied the e-commerce activity across the regions and found that the Filipinos’ average basket size is larger by 57 percent when compared to 2019.
“Filipinos spend about P1,300 a month online. This is already close to 10 percent of the average salary of grocery stock clerks,” Romualdez explained.
On the other hand, Malaysians’ average basket size is only 6 percent of the average grocery stock clerk’s salary despite having a higher average basket size of P2,336.
“Looking at this data and comparison, we can have an idea of how much more comfortable Malaysians’ quality of life may be compared to Filipinos,” Romualdez said.
For full report, visit here.