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Medical workers may be losers in FTA

Japan Times

Medical workers may be losers in FTA

By Glenn Omanio

9 September 2006

MANILA (Kyodo) Philippine officials may be upbeat about finalizing the bilateral free-trade agreement with Japan this weekend, but there is some concern that the country’s medical workers will be the losers in the deal.

The FTA will mean freer movement of people between the two countries, something the Philippines welcomes. Professionals, including doctors and nurses, are eager to get high-paying jobs in wealthy countries.

Japan is keen to follow other rich countries by having foreign nurses fill the shortage at home and has opened its labor market to Filipino nurses and caregivers.

But Filipinos may be in for a big disappointment as Japan has put in the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement that it will only accept caregivers who are college graduates, and nurses who are fluent in Japanese and can pass its nursing license examination — in Japanese.

Analysts say Japan’s position of only giving visas to health workers who can speak Japanese could backfire as the rising demand for health workers in wealthy nations, also facing rapidly aging populations and falling fertility rates, will mean stiff competition to get workers from poorer countries.

The agreement does not specify the number of nurses Japan will accept, but media reports said that Tokyo will set an initial cap of 500 nurses per year and will increase the number depending on the need.

"Japan seemingly wants to preserve the homogeneity of its people. In a very global world, it is an exception. Japan should learn from other countries on their openness in accepting other people," said Federico Macaranas, head of the Manila-based Asian Institute of Management Policy Center.

Macaranas said that while fluency in the local language is important for nurses to perform their duties, Japan could relax this requirement to allowing non-Japanese speakers to serve English-speaking Japanese people. He said many English speakers in Japan are wealthy and can afford to hire private nurses and caregivers.

Marilyn Yap, president of the Philippine Nurses Association, said the language requirement is harsh and decreases the chances of Filipino nurses passing the national exam.

"In order for you to take the Japanese board exam, you have to master the language. It takes time. That’s our concern," Yap said.

An indication of just how hard a Japanese exam would be for Filipino nurses is the the pass rate for information technology workers, who also must take a certification exam. A average of 5 percent of Filipino applicants have passed the exam since it was offered in 2002.

In an test program in the mid-1990s, only one of 13 Filipino nurses finished the two-year Japanese language program and passed the national nursing exam.

Yap said Japan will have to compete with other countries in attracting Filipino nurses and caregivers, adding Japan should offer higher salaries and better nonmonetary packages to compensate for the language requirements.

Given the same salary and work benefits, Filipino nurses, most who speak English fluently, would rather choose English-speaking countries such as the United States or Britain over Japan because of the language barrier.

"It remains to be seen if Filipino nurses will be accepting offers to work in Japan. I am reluctant," Yap of the nurses association said. "If there are any other options easier, I’d take that."

Every year, as many as 8,000 Filipino nurses leave for Saudi Arabia, continental Europe and the United States, according to Philippine labor statistics.

The United States remains the favorite destination. Nurses can bring their families and they earn as much as $ 4,000 a month compared to the $ 200 they get at home, studies show.

The World Health Organization estimates that by 2008, Britain will need 25,000 doctors and 250,000 nurses while the United States will need around 1 million nurses in the next decade to meet the projected shortfall.