Nurses strike again for better career path and pay structure

On 12 May 2009, International Nurses Day, the trade unions representing nurses in Portugal organised a national demonstration, demanding a fair career and better working conditions. It was the third nursing strike this year, and the fourth since the unions presented their proposal on the revision of the nursing career. At stake are government proposals on the revision of nurses’ professional statute, in line with the reform of labour relations in the public sector.

Background

According to Law No. 12-A/2008 establishing provisions on careers and remuneration regimes of staff fulfilling public functions in Portugal (PT0705019I, PT0708039I, PT0706069I), the special career provisions of some specific professional groups – such as teachers, doctors and nurses – had to be revised. The negotiation of this revision with the trade unions was expected to be concluded by September 2008. However, in the healthcare sector, the government proposals for the revision of the nurses’ statute were only presented in December 2008. This delay may have been partly due to the tense atmosphere created by conflicts over government policy in relation to adjustments in the National Health Service (Serviço Nacional de Saúde, SNS), which ended with the resignation of the Minister for Health, Correia de Campos, in January 2008.

Negotiations on new nursing statute

The Nurses’ Union Negotiating Committee (Comissão Negociadora dos Sindicatos dos Enfermeiros, CNESE) had already presented a proposal to the government for the revision of the nurses’ career before Law No. 12-A/2008 came into force. In February 2008, when the law was published, CNESE called for the negotiating process to begin; however, the government postponed this procedure until the end of July 2008, when the Ministry of Health (Ministério da Saúde) issued a document outlining the general principles on the nursing career.

Nurses’ demands

After two inconclusive meetings with the Ministry of Health, in August and September 2008, the four nurses’ trade unions decided to launch a two-day strike on 30 September and 1 October 2008. Their demands included the following:

  • a single uni-category career applicable to all nurses in the public sector, regardless of their legal basis of employment;
  • a revision of nurses’ pay index to bring it into line with those of comparable professions, such as teachers and inspectors;
  • open-ended employment contracts for all nurses who perform permanent functions and have a fixed-term employment contract;
  • the recruitment of additional nurses in the public sector, in order to overcome labour shortages in some services.

In December 2008, the Ministry of Health finally presented the proposals for the revision of the statute. The trade unions reacted strongly against the proposals, which – in their view – promoted the segmentation of employment conditions in the sector. From December 2008 until February 2009, the government did not come back to the trade unions with further information or proposals.

Further strikes called

On 20 February 2009, nurses went on strike again, protesting against the government delay in formulating new proposals and against two main issues of the government proposal: the creation of two careers, that is, a multi-category career system; and the differentiation of careers and working conditions on the grounds of a different legal basis of employment. Nevertheless, the government continued to postpone the presentation of new proposals and, on 2–3 April 2009, the trade unions launched another strike with the same goals.

On 15 April 2009, the Ministry of Health held a meeting with the trade unions, which considered that, despite some positive results, the ministry did not answer their requests on a number of issues. These included the regulation of specialised advisory nurse positions, the nurses’ discriminatory pay index compared with other special careers in the public sector, the wage progression and the principles underpinning the transition from the present career regime to the new system. Therefore, they decided to launch a further strike on 12 May 2009, which was International Nurses Day, and to organise a national demonstration on the same day in the capital city of Lisbon.

According to the trade unions, about 80% of the nurses joined the strike, while the Ministry of Health estimates that around 63% of the nurses participated. Moreover, according to trade union sources, the nurses’ demonstration was the largest ever seen in the sector. About 5,000 nurses walked the streets of Lisbon, from the Ministry of Health to the official residence of the Prime Minister, José Sócrates.

Position of nursing unions

The nurses’ trade unions demand that, at the start of their career, nurses’ wages should be equal to that of teachers or inspectors, while the Ministry of Health proposes to pay them €200 less. In addition, the nurses reject the ministry’s proposal on wage progression, which obliges them to work for 45 years before they reach the top of the career ladder. Furthermore, they demand that the rules under negotiation apply to all nurses, regardless of their legal basis of employment. Moreover, the trade unions are continuing to insist on the promotion of open-ended employment contracts for nurses who perform permanent functions and on the recruitment of additional nurses in the public sector, in order to overcome labour shortages in certain areas.

Maria da Paz Campos Lima, Dinâmia

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