The release of a letter to the INMO from Secretary General Michael Scanlon regarding a review of the proposed pay cuts for 4th year nurses on placement marks what may be the end of a long struggle for both the nurses involved, and their resistant governing body. Activism began in February of this year to attempt to reverse the proposal to cut on-placement nurses’ pay from 200 euro a week to nil, a move which UCDSU Campaigns and Communications Officer Brendan Lacey described as “student nurses from UCD being turned into student slaves”. The original proposal was drafted by the previous government as a hurried attempt at cost-cutting, and was described by the INMO, according then Campaigns and Communications Officer Pat de Brún, as “Mary Harney’s parting shot”.
The letter from Secretary General Scanlon to the INMO reveals that Minister for Health, Dr James Reilly, concluded that undergraduate pay during the 4th year placement would be cut to sixty per cent of relevant staff nurse salary scale for the 2011/2012 academic year, to be cut a further ten per cent in the year following. Although this will no doubt be welcomed by some as a considerable improvement from the original proposal, not to mention a rare victory for student lobbying, it might more realistically be viewed as a still insignificant figure when placed in context of both the hours these students are expected to work, and legal liability placed on their shoulders.
In contrast to any other work placement, the 4th year nursing placement puts students in what can be an incredibly letigious position, in which they are required to take responsibility for the continous physical welfare of their patients. It is worth noting that these student nurses are effectively ‘students’ in name alone; they are placed under the same pressures, have the same responsibilities and work the same hours as their fully-qualified counterparts. Indeed, the very fact that they are forced to operate in a system in which under-paid students are given the same burden of care, and furthermore, the same accountability as qualified nurses, speaks to the quality and the priorities of the health system itself.
Add to this the mandatory night shifts, twelve-hour working days and the mammoth figure of a thirty-six week placement, and one would be forgiven for thinking that even the revised pay reduction is still an appalling cutback to what are, in essence, our frontline services. However, the argument must be raised; why should nurses get paid a weekly stipend at all? The final year is a placement, an essential application of real-world skills without which their eventual qualifications would be weakened. Hospitals are willing to take on inexperienced would-be nurses, for better or ill, and provide an educational service in exchange for the student’s participation and working hours. Why should nurses be paid to recieve education, without which they would not be qualified to work in their chosen field? What differenciates, in prinicipal, this stage of their education from a comparible final-year Science student working twelve hours in a lab? Does that too not constitute ‘slave labour’?
Perhaps the primary difference is that hospitals (with one notable exception) are external businesses, unconnected to the University or the USI. Is it unacceptable to have students (most commonly post grads) work ungodly hours for minimal pay only if their work cannot aid the university, or even bolster both the university’s reputation and its coffers?
Where this argument falls down, however, is in the incomparable nature of the work expected of a nursing student and any other ‘working’ student discipline. Pay structures, in every occupation, take risk into account when calculating reward. Not only is the work of our student nurses essential, admirable, and valuable in and of itself, it represents an infinitely more labour-intensive working day than not only any other student placement, but the majority of ‘real-world’ profession. Furthermore, the legal liability these young men and women must be conscious of represents a very real working ‘risk’ for which they must be fairly and adequately compensated.
As such, the proposed cutbacks, although an unquestionable improvement from the frankly insulting Fianna Fail scheme, still represents an inadequate remuneration for the young men and women who pursue this essential position, while targeting the vulnerable providers of frontline services that we so entirely depend on, but that the Government believes will be too preoccupied and too over-worked to be in a position to actively resist. As such, it is worth noting that as welcome as the amendment to the previous proposal is, it still represents a further burden placed on those from whom we already expect so much.