MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - Millions of Filipinos face having to pay for their own Covid-19 tests as a new rule mandating vaccines in workplaces comes into force, even as essential workers in some parts of the country struggle to access shots.
As of Wednesday (Dec 1), businesses will require employees entering offices to factories to be inoculated against the virus. The rule is being enacted despite the South-east Asian nation having one of the lowest vaccination rates among major economies, with just 41 per cent of the population inoculated.
While the government acknowledges many people have not been able to access vaccines due to logistical and supply delays, it is making even those who have not been able to get a shot undergo regular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or antigen screenings at their own expense to be able to go to work.
Restaurants and government agencies will also be allowed to refuse entry or deny service to individuals who remain partly or wholly unvaccinated, with the measures part of a wider push by the government to boost the overall vaccination rate.
The authorities have not specified how often workers will need to get tested to access workplaces, but antigen tests typically cost around 2,000 Philippine pesos (S$54), while PCR tests can cost as much as 3,000 to 5,000 pesos.
The gross monthly minimum wage in the Philippines was the equivalent of US$10 (S$13.60) in 2019, according to the International Labour Organisation. Labour secretary Silvestre Bello told Bloomberg News the "ideal situation" would be for all workers to be vaccinated, to ensure workplace safety.
"Since we can't compel them until there's a law that would require that, the next best thing we can do on the part of the employer is to require them to undergo testing," Mr Bello said in an interview. "This requirement is conditioned to the fact that we have available vaccines."
Mr Bello said consideration would be given to workers from remote areas where access to shots was available but limited, and that the vaccine mandate and testing rule would not apply in these areas. He did not, however, elaborate or specify any locations.
Covid-19 vaccines are widely available in Metro Manila, which accounts for a third of the Philippines' economic output. Outside the capital region, however, widespread logistics challenges, from storage to transportation and distribution, hamper people's ability to get inoculated.
Of the 35.5 million essential workers across the country, only 13.2 million were fully vaccinated as at Nov 28, according to government data. Besides poor access, the Philippines is also seeing some vaccine hesitancy, like in many parts of the world.
Mr Sergio Ortiz-Luis, head of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines, called it unfair to punish workers who weren't inoculated because they haven't had access to shots.
"Children are walking around the malls unvaccinated, yet you bar those who are similarly unvaccinated from earning a living," said Mr Ortiz-Luis, who is also the president of the Philippine Exporters Confederation. "It's punitive."
Mr Joey Concepcion, an adviser on entrepreneurship to President Rodrigo Duterte, said on Wednesday that businesses would be more at risk of their operations being snarled by lockdowns if their workers were unvaccinated.
"Employees will eventually come to the realisation that being vaccinated is important," he said in an interview. "This is for the common good. Everyone's health and livelihood is at stake."
While the mandate follows similar restrictions in regional neighbour Singapore, which is limiting unvaccinated people's access to workplaces starting January, the city-state's inoculation rate is significantly higher at 89 per cent, according to Bloomberg's vaccine tracker.
A national vaccination programme run from Monday to Wednesday focused on six regions outside Manila, and had the goal of issuing another nine million shots.
The new rule "was like an ultimatum for me", said Mr Bernardo Wabe, 46, a security guard at a state-owned bank in Manila. "I don't want to end up working and using my earnings just to pay for my swab tests. I headed to the nearest vaccination site to get my shot last week."
Mr Wabe had waited even as the Philippines started rolling out vaccines starting in March. "I was afraid I'd get even more sick if I get vaccinated, but this time I really had no choice," he said.
The Philippines has eased pandemic restrictions in recent weeks as cases have declined, including loosening up internal travel rules to bolster the economic recovery. But it has rolled back the reopening to tourists as concerns rise globally about the new Omicron variant, and closed the border to countries where the strain has been detected.
The vaccine mandate and push will "help sustain further reopening and recovery of many businesses", said Mr Michael Ricafort, chief economist at Rizal Commercial Banking in Manila. The measures will also help cushion Omicron's potential impact, he said.