BY ASHZEL HACHERO and GERARD NAVAL
THE United Kingdom has no plan to enter a deal that would allow the Philippines to send nurses and other medical professionals in exchange for COVID-19 vaccines, the UK’s envoy to Manila said yesterday.
This as nurses and labor groups slammed the Department of Labor and Employment for the barter move of Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III who they said is treating workers as commodities.
DOLE defended the move, saying it only wants to ensure that nurses and other medical workers are vaccinated before they are deployed abroad.
Ambassador Daniel Pruce said his government prefers to help developing countries such as the Philippines have access to the vaccine through the COVAX Facility led by the World Health Organization.
“The UK has made a very emphatic commitment that any surplus vaccines it may have will be passed on to the WHO COVAX Facility,” Pruce said adding that it the best mechanism to “ensure fair and equal access” to the vaccine globally.
The barter proposal was disclosed on Monday by Alice Visperas, director of the International Labor Affairs Bureau, who said Bello asked the UK and Germany to donate COVID-19 vaccines, in exchange for exemption from a cap in the deployment of Philippine healthcare workers.
The Philippines, which has among Asia’s highest number of COVID-19 cases, has relaxed a ban on deploying its healthcare workers overseas, but still limits the number of medical professionals leaving the country to 5,000 a year.
Visperas said the Philippines was open to lifting the cap in exchange for vaccines from Britain and Germany, which it would use to inoculate outbound workers and hundreds of thousands of Filipino repatriates.
The Philippines has yet to start its vaccination program.
A Reuters report quoted a spokesman of the UK’s health ministry, citing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as saying, “We have no plans for the UK to agree a vaccine deal with the Philippines linked to further recruitment of nurses.”
“We have confirmed that we will share any surplus vaccines in the future – for example through the COVAX international procurement pool.”
The German Embassy in Manila has yet to issue a statement on the matter.
Pruce praised Filipino medical workers for their competence and professionalism, adding they have contributed greatly to his country’s health service, especially amid the pandemic.
There are about 30,000 Filipinos working for UK’s National Health Service, many of them are in the frontline against the effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Migrante International and the Nagkaisa Labor Coalition scored the DOLE for treating OFWs as mere commodities that can be traded and exchanged with other countries.
“This is another glaring example of how the Duterte government reinforces the decades long policy of exploiting Filipino workers as exported commodities,” said Migrante.
“The government would like to sell our nurses as if they are commodities in a barter trade in exchange for vaccines,” said NAGKAISA.
The labor sector said it only shows that the Duterte administration does not respect the OFWs, including healthcare workers.
“The Duterte government clearly has no respect for and undervalues the critical contributions of our Filipino healthcare workers,” said Migrante.
“This administration doesn’t respect workers’ rights and treat them like commodities,” said NAGKAISA.
DOLE spokesman Rolly Francia explained that what the agency is after is to ensure that all OFWs to be deployed overseas will not be put at risk from COVID-19.
“What we want is for our workers to be capable of facing their workplaces once they are deployed in other countries. The intention is to enable our nurses that were requested there,” said Francia.
He said DOLE does not intend to treat healthcare workers as commodities but that they want to better ensure their protection.
“It is never the intention of the government to treat them as commodities or materials to be traded in exchange for vaccines,” he said.
Francia added it would be premature to discuss details as planned agreements are still under negotiations.
The Department of Health said it was not informed about the trade being worked out with the UK and Germany.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said, “We were not consulted. We are not even aware of this kind of exchange between our government and the other governments for this matter. We have no information on this.”
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon said the move is a “sign of desperation.”
Drilon, former labor secretary, said DOLE’s “palit bakuna” (vaccine trade) initiative “is a wrong policy and sets a bad precedent.”
He echoed the labor groups’ sentiment, saying healthcare workers “are not commodities they can trade off.”
Sen. Joel Villanueva, Senate committee on labor chair, said he disagrees with DOLE’s proposal, saying “we simply do not swap people for products.” – With Raymond Africa and Reuters