Can Duterte stop health workers from leaving PH?

President Rodrigo Duterte will meet with Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and officials of the government’s coronavirus task force to discuss whether or not his administration can ban the deployment of health workers during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Duterte broached the idea in a late night address on Monday, May 4, citing both his “concern” for  the health and safety Filipinos serving as frontliners overseas and his disappointment over the increased recruitment of health workers by other countries.  

“We’ll have to look into this again. It has to be this week, we’ll have to meet again and consult legal, si Secretary Guevarra, whether or not it would be legal for us to just stop the migration of health workers simply because they are being taken in a place where there is so much…Kawawa ang Pilipino eh (Filipinos are disadvantaged),” Duterte said.  

Duterte said that more than the country needing more health workers, he was more concerned with overseas Filipinos’ “safety.”

“A more valid reason to stop a doctor or nurse or a more previous one that said, you will be deprived of workers…. Wala na ngayon (That can;t be'… no leg to stand on actually. But this one if I send you to a warfront, the enemy is the COVID…. Please do not misunderstand me, I am making it clear now, I do not want you to go there and come back in a coffin,” Duterte said. 

 “That’s my only argument, if you may, because you are Filipinos at mahal ko ang buhay ng kababayan ko (and I love my countrymen),” he added. 

Duterte’s argument is one that overseas health workers had earlier rejected, when the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) issued a temporary deployment ban on the deployment of workers, citing a shortage of workers in the Philippines and the “safety” of Filipino frontliners overseas.  

Health workers who were affected by the ban had said they were fully aware of the risks involved in going overseas but wanted to provide for their families especially during the crisis. (READ: PH deployment ban scars nurses during pandemic)

But can Duterte ban health workers from leaving? The Constitution may provide some room in Section 6 of the Bill of Rights which says: 

“The liberty of abode and of changing the same within the limits prescribed by law shall not be impaired except upon lawful order of the court. Neither shall the right to travel be impaired except in the interest of national security, public safety, or public health, as may be provided by law.” 

Here, national security, public safety, or public health, are cited as possible grounds for limits to the right to travel. 

The Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1985 likewise allows the government to implement a deployment ban anytime “in pursuit of the national interest or when public welfare so requires.”

Health workers, particularly those who already had contracts overseas and were affected by the ban, pleaded to the government that they risked the possibility of facing cases from employers and had spent thousands of pesos to secure jobs overseas.

The Philippine Nurses Association Inc (PNA) likewise argued in a position paper against the POEA’s earlier ban that "requiring medical nurses to render service despite the fact that many have employment contracts is tantamount to involuntary servitude."

PNA had also cited Section 18 (2) under the Constitution’s Bill of Rights which said “No involuntary servitude in any form shall exist except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  

While the government’s task force earlier amended the POEA’s ban to allow those with existing contracts as of March 8 to leave, overseas Filipino nurses are calling on the government to amend the ban once more as additional guidelines continue to leave them stranded in the country.

Earlier in April, Duterte had said that while he was "okay" with allowing workers with existing contracts to leave, health workers should stay in the country to fight the pandemic as there was "no end in sight...and our numbers are increasing." – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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