Immigrating to the UK: The story of an OFW nurse who worked in the NHS
In this article, we talk with Harry, a Filipino nurse who chose to work in the United Kingdom (UK) and become the breadwinner for his family. Immigrating to the UK, or any country for that matter, is a challenge some people might not be willing to face. Leaving our loved ones behind to pursue better career opportunities and financial freedom can come with its own price. Read on to learn the issues Harry faced and how he overcame them.
Life in the Philippines
Harry (not his real name) grew up as the eldest in a middle-class family in Negros Occidental, a province on the western side of the Philippines’ Visayan islands. A seaman’s son, he recalls a peaceful life filled with friendship and youthful memories.
“My whole life living in the Philippines was great, as my sister and I were supported not only financially but also with values that both my mother and father gave to us, even though it was only my mother who was on our side,” said Harry.
During his childhood and adolescence, Harry’s family never struggled financially, but he does acknowledge that his father sacrificed most of his life to earn a thriving wage as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW).
Spending most of his time at sea, Harry’s father was only home for two to three months of the year. Thus, he and his younger sister mostly grew up with their mother, a retired accountant turned full-time homemaker.
But it was because his father worked abroad that Harry was able to graduate from a prestigious high school in his hometown and earn a nursing degree. He could even afford to take a year off after passing the nursing board on his second try.
What he didn’t know upon getting his nursing license was he would soon become his family’s only source of income.
After his gap year, Harry spent the next three years gaining experience as an outpatient nurse and earning a graduate degree in nursing. Then in 2017, his father’s health suffered a debilitating blow.
Diagnosed with a heart blockage and sickle cell anaemia, Harry’s father was forced to stop working and seek treatment.
According to the National Health Service (NHS), sickle cell anaemia is the “most serious type” of sickle cell disease, a chronic genetic illness where red blood cells are deformed. This can cause bouts of pain and can leave one susceptible to fatigue and infections, or they may even have a stroke.
“It was at this time that the family struggled both emotionally and financially because my father was the only source of income we had”, said Harry. “During this event, it changed my life, and a sense of urgency was already developing inside of me to look for a high-paying job during that time.”
Taking on his father’s role as the breadwinner, Harry quit working as a local outpatient nurse and attempted to land a nursing job abroad. Before Immigrating to the UK, he tried and failed to make the cut for Saudi Arabia but ultimately passed the criteria to be a nurse in the United Kingdom.
Thus, Harry started immigrating to the UK in 2019, just days before Christmas. He was forced to live independently for the first time in his life, during the festive holidays too. Harry struggled to adjust to life in South Devon, a coastal community in England popular among retirees.
The challenges of life in the UK
Not fond of small talk, Harry first found British culture’s penchant for pleasantries disagreeable.
“I know myself as a person who only talks to people who I am comfortable with,” said Harry. “But with British culture, they love to interact and love small talk, even the smallest. One topic can go into another topic and will not end unless someone stops it.”
Because of the culture’s aversion to confrontations, his frank nature also caused some friction in some of his interactions.
It took some time for Harry to assimilate into British culture since immigrating to the UK and he learned to “go with the flow” when dealing with others. But even though he has adjusted to life in the UK, he says his ongoing struggle is dealing with racism.
“Being a worker in another country is different from being a visitor because it is where you can see the true colours of the people”, noted Harry.
He recalled encountering people who still thought his country was a small island, even though the Philippines is an archipelago that is bigger than the UK. He also said some people act as if they are above him simply because he is Filipino.
While he has learned to face casual racism with a stiff upper lip, Harry must still deal with discrimination in the workplace. Almost five years after immigrating to the UK, Harry noted that he is still considered different, and he feels this at work. He also said the amount of work assigned to him and other foreign-trained nurses in the UK could be heavier than their local counterparts.
“The amount of work being put to foreigners like us in the UK is heavy and sometimes abusive,” said Harry.
Among the 40,000 Filipino nurses working in the UK, Harry is not alone in his struggles. And conditions only grew worse for them and other Filipino healthcare workers at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Al Jazeera, “The Filipino community has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In May 2020, it was reported that 13% of frontline healthcare workers who died had been Filipino, despite making up just 2% of NHS staff.”
Some of these Filipino healthcare workers had no immediate families in the UK and died alone whilst self-isolating, while others were unfairly compensated despite contracting the virus on duty.
The stress of being in a new country while also facing deaths, uncertainty, and inadequate protection and support during the pandemic severely affected some Filipino health workers’ mental health. And when they turned to their supervisors or colleagues for support, they were met with more stress and shame.
Along with this, Asian nurses also had to deal with racist slurs and behaviour as some patients refused to work with them or blamed them for spreading a virus that was first recorded in China.
Despite these stressful working conditions, some healthcare workers were, and still are, afraid to speak out, fearing losing their jobs and remaining in the UK.
Managing your finances in the UK
“Remember, the way of living here (in the UK) is in pounds, not pesos,” He reminded fellow OFWs. “One must be responsible enough to take care of their finances because most Filipinos here are in debt due to their lack of financial knowledge.”
He noted that Filipinos in the UK should learn how to manage their finances and be mindful of their spending. This will keep them from falling into the trap of “work hard but spend harder,” which will only keep them in a perpetual rat race and “make their lives miserable.”
“My advice to upcoming Filipinos who wish to live or work in the UK is to ask yourself first if you are ready for the challenge,” he said.
While saving up in the UK, Harry dreams of leaving his stressful life as an OFW orthopaedic nurse to open his own business in the Philippines, near his loved ones and in more agreeable weather. He has also been studying how to “increase my investment portfolio and add additional income.”
The low salaries, along with understaffing issues, have already convinced some public nurses to hold the largest nursing strike in NHS history and demand higher pay.
Unlike some of his colleagues choosing to settle in the UK, Harry plans to return to the Philippines in the next 10 years. He has learned to cope with life in the UK, but dealing with its rising inflation rate and “very low” nurses’ pay rate has proven unsustainable for him.
Sending money to the Philippines from the UK
Just like Harry said, it pays to be financially savvy. Whenever you send money to the Philippines, always look for remittance services that offer competitive exchange rates and have secure money transfer capabilities. It’s even better if these services work with other merchants who can build your investment portfolio.
Kabayan Remit has these qualities and more. To learn more about our services, talk to our 24/7 bilingual customer service team here.