Philippine Government’s Proposal of Trading Nurses for Vaccines is Outrageous

President Duterte is willing to let thousands of Filipino health workers migrate for work to Britain and Germany in exchange for vaccines.

The Philippine government recently offered to let thousands of its health workers migrate for work to Britain and Germany in exchange for vaccines. This barter proposal is scandalous. It does not only undermine the on-going campaign for vaccine equity but also disregards efforts towards a rights-based approach to labour migration, particularly for a country that deploys a huge number of migrant workers worldwide.

PSI calls on the Philippine government to desist from such barter trade. Workers are not commodities

PSLINK, the PSI affiliate organising health workers in the Philippines has protested this disturbing offer. The union unequivocally condemns the government’s proposal and followed this up with a demonstration on the 4th of March. The same position is strongly shared by PSI unions in the countries concerned.

Migration of health workers from the Global South to richer countries in the Global North has contributed significantly to worsening health outcomes in developing countries. The global health system is grossly under-staffed with an estimated shortfall of 18 million health workers worldwide if steps are not taken to improve health employment and working conditions.

Health workers shortfall is most severe in poorer countries. For example, the first global State of Nursing report issued by the World Health Organization in 2020 shows that 83% of the 5.9 million more nurses needed across the world are in low- and lower middle-income countries, while over 80% of the world’s nurses are found in countries that account for half of the world’s population.

Key Figures

Vaccination across the world by the first week of March



have been administered



in just ten rich countries



have not received a single dose

Nurses and other health workers constitute a large part of Filipinos working overseas. The remittances they send home each year is over $30bn. Poor remuneration and working conditions are major push factors which make these health workers migrate. But this has a serious impact on healthcare delivery as it leaves the public health system understaffed.

In 2019 alone, 17,000 Filipino nurses migrated to work abroad. To stop this haemorrhaging of staff from the national health system particularly in this time of pandemic, the Philippine government capped the annual number of health worker deployment to 5,000.

PSI and its affiliates in the Philippines and in countries of destination have been taking steps to ensure fair working conditions for migrant health workers, such as through organizing, information dissemination, providing support services, union representation, advocacy and social dialogue.

This unilateral offer by the Philippine government, which is unacceptable under any condition, does however reflect the desperation which developing countries like the Philippines are facing, given the current global regime of inequitable access to vaccines.

Almost 300m doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered across the world by the first week of March. More than half of these have been in just ten rich countries, whereas more than 130 countries have not received a single dose. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres underscored this “wildly uneven and unfair” progress of global vaccination. The Philippines wants to vaccinate 70 million, to cover its adult population. But it only started its vaccination campaign in March with a donation of doses of the Sinovac vaccine from China, which local regulators recommended only for persons between 18 and 59 years.

Due to the costs, developing countries are struggling to access vaccines. Universal access to Covid-19 vaccines, medicines and technologies is however essential for the world to end the pandemic. No one is safe unless everyone is safe.

Therefore, PSI has consistently called for waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines, medicines, and technologies as well as international support on a multilateral basis for all states. Everybody must be able to have free and effective vaccines, everywhere.

Desperation of low and lower-middle income countries to vaccinate their population is however no excuse for such an insidious proposal as the one made by the Philippine government. We need universal access to vaccines, and we also need safe and effective staffing for health in all countries.

PSI thus calls on the Philippine government and any government to desist from such barter trade. Workers are not commodities that can be traded. As we continue to amplify our voice for vaccine equity worldwide, we equally raise the alarm: our health workers are not for sale!

*This text was written in collaboration with PSI Migration Programme Officer Genevieve Gencianos