By DARIO AGNOTE
MANILA — Filipino caregiver Stella Lelis trained in Japan for three years and speaks basic Japanese.
Like thousands of Filipino nurses and caregivers, the 28-year-old hopes to be among the first batch who will be allowed to care for Japan's seniors.
But notwithstanding the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement that entered into force last week, Lelis and other Filipino caregivers face a tough hurdle: They will have to take licensing exams in Japanese.
Even Japanese nurses and caregivers are known to have flunked these daunting examinations, a fact that further dents the confidence of Filipino health workers wanting to work in Japan.
"Our Japanese friends in Okayama failed the exams. I'm not sure we'll fare better when we are not native speakers," Lelis said recently.
The entry of Filipino nurses and caregivers to Japan is one of the main highlights of the partnership agreement designed to strengthen economic links between the Philippines and Japan.
Under the agreement, Filipino nurses and caregivers are expected to arrive in Japan next April to June to undergo language training for half a year before going to work at hospitals and nursing-care facilities across Japan.
They will try to acquire national qualifications in three to four years from their arrival in Japan. The candidates, however, will have to return home if they fail to win Japanese qualification.
Separately, some caregiver candidates will try to win qualification by receiving training at schools in Japan. They plan to arrive in Japan next October and enter the schools in April 2010.
In the Philippines, more than 400 nursing schools are producing more nursing graduates than can be employed by hospitals and rest homes. Many of the fresh graduates are pinning their hopes on finding a job overseas.
News that Japan was opening its labor market to Filipino nurses and caregivers had been initially met with much excitement.
But as details about the language barrier came to light, more and more Filipino nurses and caregivers have opted to explore opportunities elsewhere, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the Middle East.
"We hope Japan will treat our nurses professionally and with dignity," said Gisela Luna, dean of St. Luke's College of Nursing.
"The language barrier, low salary and their entry to Japan is not as welcoming compared with other destinations," Luna said. "That's the big drawback."
Besides providing a framework for liberalizing trade and investment between the two countries and allowing Filipino nurses and caregivers to work in Japan, the agreement also details possible cooperative programs, including training courses for the regulation of and supervision of financial institutions, trade and investment cooperation, cooperation in the field of small and medium enterprises, technical cooperation in the field of science and communications technology and promotion of tourism.
The agreement was signed in September 2006 between Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, but it took the Philippine Senate nearly two years to ratify it after some senators called for renegotiation on grounds it was "riddled with constitutional defects."
Environmental activists also called on the government to junk the treaty, saying its provisions were "flawed" and more advantageous to Japan.
The Diet ratified it in December 2006, while the Philippine Senate, which is controlled by Arroyo's foes, followed suit last Oct. 9, ending an uphill battle for the president.
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