This Filipino American History Month, Nurses Celebrate the Rich Contributions of Filipino People.
October is Filipino American History Month, and as the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in the United States, we know it’s simply not possible to properly celebrate this event without discussing the important contributions of Filipino nurses to the U.S. health care workforce.
Filipino American nurses are so integral to the activism of National Nurses United. Anyone who has been out to one of our strike lines can attest to their fierce fighting spirit. Their important role in our organization is reflected throughout the leadership of NNU and culminates in Zenei Cortez, RN, who sits as one of NNU’s presidents and, in that capacity, is the highest-ranking Filipino nurse leader in the United States and, quite possibly, the world.
“Our union, our country, and our world is stronger because of the rich contributions of the Filipino people,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN. “Zenei has been critical to our fight for safe patient ratios, workplace violence protections, and Medicare for All. Despite being an important asset to our global health care system, Filipino nurses haven’t historically been recognized in leadership positions. The world needs to make way for more leaders like Zenei.”
Zenei’s story is a common one for Filipino nurses. Nursing is in her DNA.
“Our family, like many Filipino families, is a family of nurses,” says Zenei. “My aunt was a nurse, my cousins are nurses, my sisters are nurses, and even my sisters-in-law are nurses! So, of course, I went to nursing school!”
Early on in her nursing career, Zenei was told by a manager that she couldn’t transfer to a position in a different unit because there were already too many Filipino nurses working in the department. Zenei knew this was an injustice so, with the backing of her union, she decided to fight back — and won. It was through this activism and her own struggle with discrimination that she recognized her own power and the power of nurses when they act collectively.
Despite their critical contributions to nursing and health care, Filipino nurses often experience discrimination on the job. In 2012, 69 Filipino nurses in California won a settlement after being mocked for their accents, harassed by management and security guards, and ordered to speak English. In August 2010, the California Nurses Association/NNU filed a class action grievance against a San Francisco hospital on behalf of Filipino nurses, alleging discrimination in hiring practices.
While discrimination isn’t just targeted at Filipinos, they make up the largest group of foreign-educated nurses — and nearly 18 percent of California’s workforce. This influx of Filipino nurses to the United States began after World War II when the U.S. actively recruited Filipino nurses and even opened nursing schools in the Philippines to serve as training grounds for U.S. hospitals. These hospitals found Filipino nurses to be an increasingly valuable commodity to exploit because of the Philippines’ U.S.-modeled education system and their abilities to speak English.
The women’s and civil rights movement of the 1960s created new job opportunities for women. Additionally, the value of the peso plummeted, further incentivizing nurses to leave the Philippines to seek a better life for themselves and their families. U.S. colonialism laid the foundation for the mass migration and public health crisis the Filipino people experience today. When labor-export became an economic strategy in the 1970s, the Philippines heavily relied on money sent back from workers abroad. Today, Filipino families still rely on support from Filipino American nurses, and the Philippines has become the largest exporter of nurses globally.
No matter what part of the world we call home, nurses suffer similar issues, like workplace violence, short staffing, and constantly being asked to do more with less. Nurses all share a common calling and a common commitment to bring the highest level of care to our patients — and nurses are willing to fight to make that happen.
Recognizing nurses’ shared mission, Zenei is also helping to organize nurses abroad. This month, Zenei represented NNU in the Second National Congress of nurses in the Philippines, hosted by Filipino Nurses United (FNU). During this congress, close to 200 nurse leaders from across the country gathered to fight for a voice in the workplace, better working conditions, and a decent standard of living.
The average monthly salary of an entry-level RN in the Philippines is far below the living wage, ranging from $157-$235 in the private sector and nurses can be assigned up to 100 patients per shift, according to FNU. They’re being forced out of the country by starvation wages and inhumane working conditions while their own health care system is simultaneously being privatized and defunded.
As FNU’s Secretary-General, Jocelyn Andamo, RN, said at CNA/NNOC’s 2019 Global Nurses Solidarity Assembly in San Francisco last month, “Working conditions and salaries are so terrible [in the Philippines] that most nurses leave to work abroad. In my nursing class of 82 students, guess how many are left in the Philippines? Including me, six.” Jocelyn asked the big question that many Filipino people ask: “Who will take care of Filipino people if all of the nurses are gone?”
During Filipino American History Month (and all year long!) we celebrate the contributions of nurses like Zenei and Jocelyn.
“It is an honor to be trusted to lead an organization of this magnitude. And I know that by speaking the truth, advocating for what is right for our profession, and fighting for what we need, we can accomplish anything. We will always win if we are on the right side of truth,” said Zenei.