|NEWS & NOTICES|
MANILA, Philippines – With tears in their eyes, Vilma Balatbat, 39, and her husband tightly embraced each other, knowing it would be some time before they would be together again.
Last Saturday, Balatbat and 269 other Filipino nurses and caregivers, most of them mothers, left for Japan, making up the first batch of Filipino workers deployed to the world’s second largest economy under the controversial Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA).
“I’m both sad and happy,” said Balatbat, a mother of two, who will be working overseas for the first time. “I’ll certainly miss my loved ones, but this is also a new chapter for me. I’ve been waiting so long to work abroad.”
Balatbat, a registered nurse in the Philippines, will train as caregiver in a healthcare institution in Nagoya for six months while taking the Japanese language course, which is a requirement for employment. The JPEPA program will entitle Balatbat to initially receive an “allowance” of P17,000 a month.
By February next year, she ought to pass the national board exams in Japan and can then be employed as caregiver and given a special visa of four years. Only then will she receive a regular wage of P75,000 a month.
The 92 nurses and 178 caregivers, including Balatbat, boarded two Japan Airlines flights that departed Manila. Hired by 134 Japanese institutions and facilities through the Japan International Corporation of Welfare Services (JICWELS), these women will study Japanese in five designated language institutions in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Hiroshima while undergoing practical training at the same time.
Ten more are scheduled to leave on May 31. They are, however, exempted from undergoing training, having passed the pre-qualifying exams for proficiency of the Japanese language.
Signed in 2006 but ratified by the Senate only on Oct. 9, JPEPA is essentially an “economic” agreement that seeks to promote investments and trade of goods and services between Japan and the Philippines. But the agreement will also facilitate the entry of at least 400 Filipino nurses and 600 caregivers for Japan’s aging society.
Japan had long been the destination of Filipino entertainers, popularly known as “japayukis,” until the Japanese government passed a law in 2004 that imposed stricter immigration policies to address human trafficking.
Under the new legislation, Filipino entertainers entering Japan should have at least two years of professional training at an educational institution or experience in a country other than Japan. Job recruiters said the law disqualified up to 90 percent of Filipino entertainers that were deployed in Japan.
Last Jan. 12, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and its Japanese counterpart, JICWELS, signed a memorandum of understanding paving the way for the deployment of Filipino nurses so they could make it to the national licensure examination for nurses scheduled in February 2010. The exam, administered in Japanese language, is held every year.
Filipino caregivers, meanwhile, need at least three years of work experience before they can take the national certification examination. Their contracts allow them to work in Japan for three years. If they pass the exam, they can continue to work in Japan. If they don’t, they have to return to the Philippines immediately.
Critics of JPEPA have said the arrangement, under which Filipino nurses and caregivers are treated as “candidate nurses” and “candidate caregivers” and consequently paid lower wages until they pass the national exam in Japanese language, legitimizes exploitation of Filipino workers.
But the allegations of exploitation hardly bother the nurses and caregivers who left for Japan on Saturday.
Beth Apellanes, 38, left her three children in Bohol for a job that will have her caring for elderly Japanese in Nagoya. She said she considers the JPEPA requirement for her to undergo six months of language and practical training as an opportunity to learn another language and prepare her for certification.
What worries her more is the uncertainty of living a new place. “I hope the Japanese are good people, and it won’t be difficult to deal with them,” Apellanes said.
During their pre-departure orientation, the Philippine government expressed optimism that the first batch of caregivers and nurses to Japan will convince Japanese authorities to open more jobs for Filipino health workers in Japan.
“You are the face of Philippine healthcare professionals,” Hans Cacdac, POEA’s deputy administrator said. “Let us show the world, let us show the very good people of Japan, that we are ready to provide necessary human and health care because that is what is what we are good at. I would think quite frankly that we are ranked if not the best, as among the best in the world to provide human and health care.”
While these health workers “do our country proud” by caring for sick or elderly Japanese, they join the growing ranks of overseas Filipino workers who have entrusted their families, including their spouses, young children and aging parents, to the care of others.
At the airport, children wailed as they bade their mothers goodbye. Elderly parents helped their sons and daughters wheel the pushcarts to the departure area. Airport guards stepped in to break up the endless hugging and kissing and to shoo off non-passengers from restricted areas.
One of the non-passengers was Balatbat’s husband. He moved to the far end of the departure area’s driveway to catch a good view of the Japan Airlines plane bearing his wife as it taxied the runway. As if on cue, tears rolled down his cheeks when the aircraft took off.
VERA Files is the work of veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues.