Medical rescue workers stage protest for better conditions and pay
In June 2008, a nationwide protest was launched by the National Trade Union of Medical Rescue Personnel, which was joined by other trade unions representing medical rescue workers. The trade unions are demanding changes to the law regulating state-operated medical rescue services, along with improved pay and employment conditions. In July, however, one of the participating trade unions abandoned the protest and reached an agreement with the Ministry of Health.
Trade union demands
On 23 June 2008, the National Trade Union of Medical Rescue Personnel (Krajowy Związek Zawodowy Pracowników Ratownictwa Medycznego, KZZPRM) launched a nationwide strike. The trade union activists are calling for:
- the amendment of the legislative Act of 8 September 2006 on state-operated medical rescue services. In the trade unions’ view, this act is an insufficient instrument for regulating the profession and its practice. Their main demand concerns the clear and detailed regulation of the scope of responsibility assumed by the rescue personnel for the protection of human life;
- a minimum pay guarantee to be built into the act;
- greater spending on medical rescue services;
- higher wages;
- early retirement benefits in recognition of the additional responsibility which they assume in their work.
Call for Minister of Health’s dismissal
The protesters also called for the dismissal of the serving Minister of Health, Ewa Kopacz. In a letter to the speaker of the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, the trade union leaders claimed that the minister has been neglecting social dialogue with the medical community and that ‘deliberations are being carried on in an autocratic way, depriving the social partners of their rights and grossly violating democratic principles in a country pledged to the rule of law’. However, in a statement issued on 26 June 2008, the Ministry of Health (Ministerstwo Zdrowia, MZ) assured all those concerned that it was open to dialogue as well as to the demands of the medical rescuers.
Protest action begins
On 26 June, other unions joined the protest launched by KZZPRM: the Nationwide Trade Union of Rescue Service Employees (Ogólnopolski Związek Zawodowy Pracowników Służb Ratowniczych, OZZPSR), and the Ambulance and Medical Rescue Section of the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ (Krajowa Sekcja Pogotowia Ratunkowego i Ratownictwa Medycznego Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy ‘Solidarność’, KSPRiRM NSZZ ‘Solidarność’). However, on 2 July, the trade union activists of NSZZ Solidarność, having held discussions with MZ representatives, withdrew from the protest, leaving the field to the KZZPRM and OZZPSR unions. As of 23 June 2008, the protest action also received the support of the August ’80 Free Trade Union (Wolny Związek Zawodowy ‘Sierpień 80’, WZZ Sierpień 80).
According to the Chair of KZZPRM, Robert Szulc, in the first week of July 2008 the protest was being pursued in ‘several dozen cities which have KZZPRM structures, including Katowice, Poznań, Zielona Góra, Piotrków Trybunalski, Radom and Jelenia Góra’. MZ did not issue an official statement regarding the scale of the protest.
Ministry of Health reaches compromise agreement
Responding to the protest, as noted, the government secured the cooperation of one of the trade unions. On 2 July 2008, an official statement was issued, announcing the conclusion of negotiations with the Ambulance and Medical Rescue Section of NSZZ Solidarność concerning the improvement of employment conditions for ambulance and medical rescue staff. Accordingly, it was stated that, pursuant to the agreement reached, the national section was to abandon its protest and work with MZ towards ‘ensuring due medical safety of Polish citizens within the scope of medical rescue services and conditions for employment of medical rescuers at European Union standards’.
Furthermore, amendments to the legislative act on medical rescue services, as currently in force, have been scheduled for the second half of 2008, and plans for legislative changes reorganising night-time and holiday medical and nursing services have been announced. During her meeting with NSZZ Solidarność representatives, Minister Kopacz stated that the planned changes are intended to facilitate the obtainment of additional funding – including for medical rescue services – amounting to a total of PLN 1.7 billion (about €491 million as at 9 September 2008).
It was also announced that the medical rescue services will benefit from measures and investments financed by EU funds – under the Infrastructure and Environment Operating Programme, Priority 12, Health, safety and improving effectiveness of the health protection system – for the period 2007–2013. This would include provisions such as the purchase of 600 ambulances, the modernisation and equipping of hospital emergency rooms and trauma units, and the refurbishment of air ambulance bases – all of which are scheduled for 2009. In concluding the meeting, it was stated that ‘the parties have declared full cooperation and commitment to compromise in resolving all issues concerning the medical rescue services’.
The protest by medical rescue personnel should come as no surprise. For many years, they have been demanding that the relevant legislation be adapted to actual working conditions and that their contribution to the healthcare system be duly recognised – including in terms of remuneration. The perceived lack of recognition of their work appears to have led medical rescuers to launch their own nationwide protest.
In the past, MZ representatives have largely only dealt with doctors and nurses, whose threats to abandon their posts have proved extremely effective in attracting the attention of both the authorities and mass media. Medical rescuers, on the other hand, have not until now issued such dramatic declarations, nor did they seem to be considered a serious negotiating partner. This situation may change, however, as a result of their recent protest action – unless the actions of MZ in signing an agreement with only one of the trade unions will lead to internal strife within this professional group and, in the longer term, to its marginalisation.
Jacek Sroka, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)