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Aaron McKenna: Plight of nurses exposes futility of the Croke Park deal

We’re breaking the hiring freeze to staff our health service – and the new entrants will be taking the pay cuts nobody else wants.

Aaron McKenna

THE UTTER HYPOCRISY and futility of the Croke Park Agreement was in evidence with the announcement that 1,000 graduate nurses are to be hired next year to make up for the not inconsequential staff shortages on our hospital wards. The new nurses, fully qualified and doing the same job as any of their peers, will be paid 20 per cent less for their labours than those already at work.

The first strand of the agreement exposed as farce is the fact that we’re hiring nurses during a supposed ‘recruitment freeze’, in which no new public servants are to be hired to replace those leaving or retiring. The idea is that by avoiding recruitment we can negate the need for nasty compulsory redundancies or further pay cuts. The trouble is that when some folks leave, well, you miss them more than others.

The world hasn’t fallen apart for the amount of quango bureaucrats and departmental pen-pushers who have sailed off into the sunset, thanks to efficiencies made to the work practices of those remaining (or just the fact that if half the quangos in the country shut down tomorrow, nobody would notice). Unfortunately when a nurse leaves the service, she (and it is usually a she) leaves a gap in the care that can be provided to the sick and infirm that must be filled.

To date the government has got around this niggling problem by hiring agency staff, which costs a lot more than permanent staff. Usually you use agencies when you have short term spikes in demand and it’s cheaper over the year to just bring in people as required.

Cost overruns

The government has been retaining agencies near-permanently, manning the posts of retirees. These agency staff are not counted as ‘real’ staff, so the government and unions can proudly stand up and say “We are delivering savings to the wage bill!” They neglect to mention that the line item for agencies has gone through the roof in recent years.

With cost overruns in health rising to impressive levels, the go-ahead was given to hire 1,000 new nurses, as it was decided that saving face is less important than saving a bit of money. That’s the Croke Park Agreement all over.

The second strand of farce in Croke Park comes from the wages for new entrants. These new nurses, when they’re hired, will earn a fifth less than their counterparts. The same sort of thing is happening to new entrants throughout the public service.

The unions are hosting token protests to these measures, supporting a recent march by newly qualified teachers for example. But there is no question of them bringing the entire country to a grinding halt, as they threaten they would if the government took €20, let alone 20 per cent, off any of their existing members. The ladder is being well and truly pulled up behind those already in.

Breathtaking

The hypocrisy of this is breathtaking; even more so considering that union leaders will likely be out pretending it had nothing to do with them in ten years’ time when all the industrial relations problems we are storing up by paying new entrants substantially less than their peers for an equal day’s work come to a head.

Staff nurses aren’t the only ones getting a raw deal. Student nurses, who work the same long twelve hour shifts as the peers who supervise them, get not a cent in their first year of placement; and €6 an hour in their second. The minimum wage is €8.65, in case you needed reminding.

There is some quid pro quo in being a student nurse, earning your trade. But paying nothing to a person who still cares for patients in many ways that any other nurse does is them providing a subsidy to the state, just the same way that carers do. They’re considered cheap, disposable labour. If anyone in our public sector ought to be earning six figures, it’s these sorts of heroes.

We pay inflated wages to trumped up bureaucrats, the county managers, the quango directors and the special advisers; and we pay over the odds for many mid and senior level management roles in our public service. But the nurse, be she a student or fully qualified, is getting between twenty per cent less than her colleagues and nothing at all for being there for us when we’re at our most vulnerable.

Racket

The CPA is a racket. It is unions threatening to bring the state down around our ears if their ranks are touched, whilst the young and upcoming generation of public servants subsidise their higher paid peers. It makes no sense whatsoever that a state trying to slim down cannot make the conscious choice to triage its departments and make the choice, however painful, to let go certain elements so it can save others.

The government cannot shutter a quango or merge two and let admin staff go after the efficiencies are realised; and it is forced to leave hospitals and schools shorthanded because, in the eyes of the agreement, a bureaucrat is of equal importance to a life saver. The folks working in these departments and quangos may be great people, individually deserving of merit for the job they do. But when we’re borrowing billions to keep the lights on, we should make a choice as to whether we need them more than we need our nurses, firefighters, gardai and other essential frontline staff.

Our government ought to get out of the pockets of the unions and start making conscious choices about what to save and what to cut in our public service. And we oughtn’t lean on lowly paid nurses and other new entrants to stump up far more than their fair share to ensure government doesn’t have to reach into the pockets of any highly paid folks who never have to work a 12-hour shift, care for the dying and comfort the sick.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.

Read: More columns from Aaron McKenna on TheJournal.ie>

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