10,000 New Zealand healthcare workers prepare to strike

On May 9, some 10,000 workers in New Zealand’s public healthcare system began two weeks of work-to-rule industrial action. This limited action includes a ban on all overtime and on working during breaks. The Public Service Association (PSA) members are also preparing to hold a 24-hour strike on Monday May 16, after last minute negotiations failed to avert it.

Nurses march through Wellington during June 9, 2021 strike.

The allied health workers are employed in dozens of professions, including anesthetic technicians, audiologists, occupational therapists, dental technicians, social workers and physiotherapists, and workers who process COVID-19 tests.

They are demanding increased pay and better conditions, especially safe levels of staffing, and an end to grueling workloads. The PSA has been in contract negotiations with the District Health Boards (DHBs), which manage the public health system, since September 2020. In February, the union rejected an offer of pay increases ranging between $1,800 and $4,200 over a 27-month term— which would not have kept pace with inflation.

The soaring cost of living is driving workers into struggle, as is the case internationally. New Zealand’s annual inflation rate is 6.9 percent, while in the 12 months to March wages on average increased by only 3 percent—in other words, workers have had a pay cut of 3.9 percent.

Many allied health workers earn little more than the minimum wage of $21.20 per hour. A PSA press release last month quoted a sterile services technician, Steve, who had been forced to take on a second job to make ends meet. “There is nothing to encourage us to stay in our work and we are constantly short-staffed due to people leaving for higher-paying jobs at places like Bunnings and KFC,” he said.

A dental assistant, Raewyn, told stuff that she had been forced to rely on charity to survive. Despite 16 years of experience, she made just $25.50 an hour. “It’s demoralizing, it’s demeaning, it’s… embarrassing. It makes me feel like a lower-class citizen… not worthy enough to be paid properly,” she said.

Healthcare has been underfunded and under-resourced for decades, and has been pushed to the breaking point by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Labor Party-led government has lifted most public health restrictions, allowing the virus to spread largely unimpeded. The country’s COVID death toll has soared from 59 at the end of last year to more than 900.

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