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Philippine nurses in Tokyo hurdle gap in language

Philipino nurses at a hospital. (Inquirer)
Philipino nurses at a hospital. (Inquirer)
TOKYO ― It was hard enough being transplanted into a new culture. Being hobbled by a completely alien language was another burden on Joyce Paulino and hundreds of nurses and care workers sent from the Philippines to Japan under an economic agreement between the two countries.

The language barrier has played a key role in dashing the dreams of many nurses and caregivers seeking permanent jobs in Japan, since the challenging national exam for them to be certified is given mostly in Japanese. As a result, very few have passed the exam.

But unlike many of her fellow workers sent to the Land of the Rising Sun under the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement, Paulino, 34, is one of a handful who not only mastered the language but also passed the exam for care workers on her first try early this year.

Her accomplishment ensures that she can continue staying, working and earning a decent living in Japan for as long she likes.

Paulino’s earnings at a nursing facility in Tokyo have been a big help to her parents and three siblings back home. She shoulders some of the household expenses, sends her youngest sibling to school, and pays for the tuition and other needs of her nieces and nephews.

Paulino is happy where she is, and doesn’t plan on returning home soon.

But all this did not come easy for Paulino. Learning the language while working and studying Japanese practices for the national test required skillful juggling and time management from her and many other foreign workers.

So it was not a surprise that many Filipino and Indonesian nurses and care workers who are in Japan under their countries’ economic partnership agreements have failed to pass the national exam.

In the most recent exam for the foreign workers early this year, only 9.6 percent of nursing candidates passed, and for care worker candidates, 39.8 percent, according to Yuko Ogino, deputy director for the Foreign Workers’ Affairs Division of the Employment Security Bureau.

The figure did not differ significantly from test results a year ago, Ogino said.

The Japanese government has known from the start that language proficiency would be a key part of the workers’ success in Japan, she said, and it is for language training from the start.

“One key element in deciding whether to accept [a candidate] or not depends on language ability in Japanese,” Ogino said in a briefing with participants of the 34th Nihon Shinbun Kyokai-Confederation of Asean Journalists fellowship program.

“And learning Japanese is quite a task,” she added.

But since the initial language training requirement proved inadequate, this was increased in succeeding years with the agreement of the participating countries, Ogino said.

Under the Jpepa, Filipino and Indonesian candidates must have 12 months of language training, six of them to be completed before they leave their country and the next six upon arrival in Japan.

Japan International Corp. of Welfare Services has added more support measures to strengthen the workers’ language levels, such as e-learning and correspondence studies, mock exams and intensive seminars for the national exam, according to Ogino.

Japan has given concessions to foreign workers taking the exam, such as extra time to complete the tests. It has provided English translations for technical terms and now prints the Kana, or syllables, above the Kanji characters used in the tests so that the candidates can read these even if they cannot understand the characters.

Recently, the government allowed the nursing and caregiver candidates to extend their stay in the country for a year.

The nurses and care workers first come to Japan as trainees. After completing the six-month language course, they are assigned to hospitals and nursing facilities where they undergo job training ― three years for nurses and four years for care workers. After this, they can take the national exam to qualify as permanent workers.

Nurses can take the annual exam up to three times, while care workers can take it in their third year of training in Japan. If they fail, they have to return home.

Nurses in Japan earn P66,000 to P113,000 a month, while care workers receive P64,000 to P95,000, depending on where they work.

Aside from language, the candidates must familiarize themselves with the way Japanese hospitals and nursing homes operate. The Japanese medical insurance system has been a particularly difficult area, Ogino noted.

Ogino is hopeful the passing rate for the national exam will be higher when the next batch of foreign workers takes it. She said those who had undergone the additional language training scored better when tested for proficiency.

In 2014, Japan will start accepting nurses and care workers from Vietnam. The two countries have agreed to put in place more stringent language requirements for nursing and care worker candidates.

Earlier, critics of Jpepa slammed the agreement for being unfair to Filipino workers.

One of the things they objected to was the fact that Filipinos would work first as trainees in Japan instead of being recognized immediately as professional nurses and care workers, when those accepted into the program already have training and experience in the Philippines.

They bewailed the fact that the agreement did not commit Japan to follow international core labor standards and protection of migrant health workers’ rights.

According to Ogino, Jicwels staff periodically visit the facilities where workers under economic partnership agreements are assigned.

By Leila B. Salaverria (Inquirer)