NURSES and midwives from across the country pitched tents in front of the Government Office determined to spend two nights protesting against what they consider low wages. They also protested outside the Constitutional Court in Košice. On the protest's second day, Trade Unions of Nurses and Midwives (OZSaPA) Chairwoman Monika Kavecká was critical of disinterested state officials, but Prime Minister Robert Fico later met with representatives of the nurses.
“There are 40,000 of us and still nobody cares,” Kavecká told the SITA newswire October 3.
The meeting with Fico concluded with Fico saying he pledged to help nurses at state facilities and nurses saying nothing concrete was promised.
The nurses’ largest grievance comes in reaction to a Constitutional Court negation of a law authorising increased minimum salaries. The scrapped law had guaranteed wages between €640 to €928 per month depending on professional area of emphasis.
“We want to point out the current situation, our legislative homelessness where we have found ourselves due to the decision of the Constitutional Court,” Slovak Chamber of Nurses and Midwives President Iveta Lazorová told The Slovak Spectator.
The last straw for nurses was Health Minister Zuzana Zvolenská’s September 25 response to wage demands: there is no money. Zvolenská visited the nurses’ tent village and according to the SITA newswire left a note that said, “I firmly believe that next time we will be camping only to relax and have a good time”.
The Health Ministry however insists that nurses at state-controlled facilities earn money at the level indicated by the scrapped law. Officials said that in October the average salary of nurses at state health care institutions is €1,016 and at hospitals it should be €909 in gross salary terms, SITA reported.
The nurses insist the previous health minister had guaranteed the finances for higher salaries for the nurses “while the current minister has allocated €50 million for this purpose”.
“We are asking where the money is,” Lazorová told The Slovak Spectator. “We are convinced that it is not the missing funds but their ineffective redistribution that are the main problems of the health care sector.”
The nurses have however said that the protest is not only about their wage claims but also other problems. They object to the revision to the Criminal Code, which criminalises health-care workers for not coming to work during a state of emergency, as announced by the government. The nurses and midwives also insist that there are 30 patients per one nurse in Slovakia while the European average is 10 patients per nurse, SITA wrote.
The protest was a surprise for the Health Ministry. Zvolenská met with the nurses’ associations immediately after delivering the ruling of the Constitutional Court.
Moreover, at their last meeting both associations agreed to steps proposed by the ministry and promised to cooperate in preparing new legislation, ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Čižmáriková told The Slovak Spectator.
Nevertheless, Lazorová has said that since the respective law was suspended, the nurses have had only formal meetings with the ministry which brought no result.
“The minister always heard us and said she understands us while promising to solve the situation,” Lazorová said.
The Medical Trade Unions (LOZ) and Health Policy Institute supported the protest with Peter Visolajský, head of the LOZ, saying that medical employees are entitled to legitimate guarantee of salaries, SITA reported.
Fight for higher salaries
The disputed legislation, passed by parliament in February 2012, following negotiations between the SKSaPA and the government, was to prevent the salaries of nurses and midwives from falling under a certain level. The minimum starting salary for a nurse or midwife without practical experience was to be at least €640 a month, which would increase over the next three years to reach €666 per month. A nurse’s minimum salary was then supposed to increase every three months until it reaches €928 after 33 years of work experience.
The rules applied to all nurses and midwives, not only those working for state-run health-care facilities. Yet, despite the law coming into force on April 1, 2012, some hospitals and private doctors avoided having to comply with the law by cutting the working hours of nurses or reclassifying them into lower-paid positions.
The Slovak Medical Chamber (LOZ) disputed the constitutionality of the law in March 2012, with the Office of the General Prosecutor filing a complaint with the Constitutional Court in July 2012.
The prosecutor’s office argued that the law was unconstitutional because it covered only certain health-care workers, nurses and midwives, and that there was a lack of authorised funds available to pay the higher minimum salaries. Moreover, the prosecutor’s office also mentioned an analysis by the Health Ministry, according to which some nurses might have received higher salaries than doctors working in the same clinic, the TASR newswire reported.
The ruling provoked waves of discontent among nurses, who took to the streets in protest. In November, the Slovak Chamber of Nurses and Midwives, along with the Nurse and Midwife Labour Union, formulated eight demands and set up a deadline for each to be fulfilled. Among the demands, nurses and other health-care personnel were seeking higher salaries and an end to social uncertainties like long hours and low pensions.