More than 30,000 nursing staff went on strike in New Zealand last week, in protest about what they called 10 years of government underfunding.
Documented as the first nationwide nurses’ strike in 30 years, the 24-hour protest comes months after failed negotiations between the government and nurses regarding underpaid and overworked staff, along with unsafe working conditions.
“To put it simply, the people who look after our most vulnerable have had a gutful”
Last Thursday, nurses rejected a $520m (£268.66m) package, including pay rises between 12.5% and 15%, and an increase of 500 full-time nurses across the country.
The deal was set to be introduced over the course of 25 months but union members rejected the offer after a week-long vote, despite the offer being recommended by unions themselves.
It represents the fourth pay offer from the country’s District Health Boards (DHBs) to be rejected.
Wellington nurse, Erin Kennedy, wrote an opinion piece for New Zealand news website Stuff, in which she claimed that 10 years of underfunding had left staff in unsafe working conditions. Due to high sickness rates and usual routines, members were forced to work double shifts or on days off, and were not being pressured not to take sick leave.
“An example given to me today was of a DHB that did not want a nurse receiving chemotherapy to take sick leave for it.
“Another was a nurse who was advised that the major surgery she was having did not really require six weeks off work,” said Ms Kennedy.
“We’ve gone as far as we can go as a government”
She added: “To put it simply, the people who look after our most vulnerable have had a gutful.”
Five thousand nurses remained working on Thursday to keep the country’s hospitals running. Special provisions were put in place in case of a natural disaster or major health emergency.
Lesley Harry, a member of the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation negotiating team, told Radio NZ that further action “will likely be necessary” if DHBs refused to provide extra money for a settlement.
In response to the deal being rejected, acting prime minister Winston Peters said: “We are saying give us some time … it’s not that we’re not willing to, we haven’t got the money.”
“We’ve gone as far as we can go as a government,” he said. “We got hold of a negotiated arrangement which we inherited – the nurses have had a raw nine years.”
Health minister David Clark added: “I’ve said that there’s no more money for nurses’ salaries and also that we’re hearing concerns about safe staffing; there are other things that we’re doing and addressing.
“We can’t address all of the concerns and all of the things we’d like to address in one pay round,” he said.
“The government has completely lost control of the process due to its mishandling”
According to opposition health spokesman Michael Woodhouse, the government had promised too much, too quickly on public sector pay during recent elections.
Nurses were also “frustrated” that the government’s position on entering negotiations with unions was “that’s all the money there is”, he said.
Mr Woodhouse said: “The government has completely lost control of the process due to its mishandling.”