Better conditions and pay: How nurses strike puts spotlight on the state of the industry

Nursing can be a highly rewarding career that allows you to help others and work across a variety of areas. It is among the most highly regarded careers in the public service. So why is Australia struggling to attract and retain quality nurses and midwives? In Victoria, nurses and midwives have recently initiated industrial action. This has put the spotlight on staffing shortages in the industry, and the impact conditions are having on the issue. But how did it come to this?

With thanks to the Australian Financial Review, the  Australian Nursing And Midwifery Journal, and The Age, we explore nurses’ and midwives’ concerns about the state of the industry, how they have responded to these concerns and how the government has responded to their concerns.

A background to the current situation

It’s clear more needs to be done to attract and retain nurses and midwives.  The industry is currently faced with a depleting workforce. In 2022, 9,520 nurses left the profession, an increase from the previous year. 17% of current nursing students also leave before completing their course.

In Victoria, a shortage of midwives is being particularly felt. There are 9,140 registered midwives in Victoria. In the last decade, this figure has only increased by 500. According to research, 70% of midwifery departments at public hospitals are understaffed, with this figure rising to 100% for private hospitals.

The shortage of nurses and midwives impacts the level of care provided to the community. For example, hospital patients face increasing wait times for care due to ambulance ramping and some families of infants are unable to access maternal health services.

What are nurses’ and midwives’ concerns?

Victorian nurses and midwives have raised several concerns with their current conditions.  They believe at present they are not appropriately remunerated. They believe the Victorian Government’s current offer of a 3% per annum pay rise plus a lump sum payment of $1,500 is below inflation and represents a real wage pay cut. The union rejected this offer on March 21.

However, pay is not their only issue. They are also concerned about the increasing casualisation of their workforce and an associated decline in the state’s permanent nursing and midwifery workforce.

They also want to increase financial incentives for those who work increased hours or unpopular shifts. They also want to reduce practices such as skipped meal breaks, reliance on overtime, and redeployment.

What is their response?

Nurses and midwives voted in favour of strike action in Victoria this month. The first stage will involve refusing to work overtime, administrative paperwork bans, wearing campaign t-shirts, and plastering campaign slogans on vehicles. The second stage will involve stopping some elective surgeries and closing some beds. 

What is the government’s response?

The Victorian Government says it has invested in growing Victoria’s healthcare workforce, including 7,000 workers who have joined the system as part of the state’s pandemic repair plan.

The government wants to resolve the dispute as quickly and painlessly as possible. It has acknowledged the pressures nurses and midwives face and their concerns about how their work is managed. However, it claims there are limitations to the pay increases it can offer under the state’s wage policy. With this in mind, it has put forward a revised offer to the union.

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