Nurses’ leader goes on hunger strike over pay progression row

Union president’s protest at legal move against striking nurses in Portugal

Union president’s protest at legal move against striking nurses in Portugal

Carlos Ramalho outside the presidental palace in Lisbon, where he began his hunger strike.

A nursing leader in Portugal has gone on hunger strike in protest at his government's handling of nurses' industrial action.

Surgical nurses began a three-week strike at the end of January over working conditions and lack of pay progression. But this week, the action by the Democratic Union of Nurses (Sindepor) and the Portuguese Association of Nurses (APE), was declared unlawful, with the government threatening strikers with legal sanctions.

‘Highlighting injustice’

Sindepor president Carlos Ramalho began a hunger strike on Wednesday outside the presidential palace, while APE opted to end their strike.

Sindepor chair Nuno Couceiro told Nursing Standard that the hunger strike highlighted injustice.

'Democracy is dying in Portugal when the working nursing class can't use their freedom to [go on] strike,' he said.

Low pay and staffing levels

Sindepor cites Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) figures showing the number of nurses per 1,000 population in Portugal is much lower than other comparable nations, and their salaries are the lowest.

Mr Couceiro said nurses' pay in Portugal does not reward knowledge and experience – so a nurse with 20 years' experience may be paid the same as a new nurse entering the profession.

‘I have been working for almost 13 years and my base wage is the same as a nurse who has just started working’

Paulo Fernandes, emergency department nurse, Centro Hospitalar Lisboa Central

He said the organisation had been fighting for the past 15 years for better pay and conditions.

'We ask for €1,600 monthly salary (£1,395), today we earn about €1,000 (£872) after taxes. We demand justice and respect for all nurses.'

Experience goes unrecognised

Centro Hospitalar Lisboa Central emergency department nurse Paulo Fernandes has a master’s degree in critical care and more than a decade's experience but said there is a lack of career progression for nurses in Portugal.

‘We keep developing competencies and evolving but our paychecks are almost the same.

‘I have been working for almost 13 years and my base wage is the same as a nurse who has just started working.'

The surgical nurses' strike forced the postponement of almost 2,700 scheduled operations, according to government figures.

The Portuguese Ministry of Health has been approached for comment.

‘When we come together, nurses are a force to be reckoned with’

London clinical nurse specialist in stroke Ismalia De Sousa, who is from Portugal, said: 'The current situation is not the result of a few weeks of dissatisfaction, the problems didn't arise yesterday – they are at a breaking-point. There have been consecutive walk-outs in the recent months.

Ismalia De Sousa.

Ms De Sousa added that nurses in Portugal could disrupt the status quo by working together, pointing out that the recent strikes were able to last for longer than usual because they had been supported by €400,000 in crowd funding.

'It shows nurses have the power when they come together and that we are a force to be reckoned with,' she said.


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