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The nurses' pay dispute has put the Government in a tricky situation

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The Ardern administration knows that time's up on the pay gap, but nurses must be wary of squandering public goodwill with stories of anxious patients during strike action.

The Government has been blunt with private-sector employers: wages should and will rise under its watch, and if they can’t afford to pay staff enough in this new climate, then they’ll be out of business.

The current nurses’ pay dispute gives this administration a chance to lead by example – albeit without the threatened corollary. Hospitals will not be left to go out of business. But Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has been adamant about the imperative to pay workers more than we have been doing, not only as a matter of decency but also as an unavoidable cost, like any other, of doing business.

Given this tough rhetoric, the Government has little choice but to ensure the district health boards meet nurses’ demands with a fair offer. Nurses are not low-paid, but are a highly qualified and indispensable workforce. Yet pay in the profession, which is still dominated by women, lags behind other sectors of the workforce.

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The current, apparently generous, offer from the boards does not do quite enough to redress this. The proposed $500 million increase to base rates, to be brought in over 15 months, would leave nurses still well behind the growth in the median pay rate since 2008. Median pay has grown 31% in the past decade; nurses’ 19%. Using that same measurement, teachers are 11% ahead of nurses, and they’re currently asking for a 14% pay rise.

The politics are tough for the Government, especially given its reluctance to upset business, which is traditionally hostile to Labour-led administrations. However, it is relatively easy to be generous with taxpayers’ money. It is often not so easy for small businesses – which include many GPs – to display the same largesse. How is that extra expense covered other than from their own pockets, or by charging their patients more?

The nurses’ settlement, wherever it ends up, cannot be seen in isolation. The implications of a generous settlement, especially in other parts of the health sector, are real and, for some, genuinely troubling. Even a settlement at the DHBs’ current proposed rate will unsettle the private sector by increasing pressure for pay rises in the rest of the workforce. But there are signs our society is taking a fresh look at both pay equity and at what constitutes a decent wage.

It’s significant that even for the business-friendly National Party, one of the biggest boasts it has made of its stewardship of health was that low-paid care workers won a significant pay rise. Never mind that it was forced upon the previous Government after court action sponsored by the E tū union; the fact remains that National came to see the virtue of paying a higher wage to a group of mostly women workers.

Only someone who has never been a caregiver would describe the occupation as unskilled. In fact, it requires considerable skill to do well but caregivers had been lagging so far behind men doing similar jobs in the workforce that the catch-up was conspicuously overdue.

The worldwide rumblings set off by the #MeToo movement have focused attention on women’s rights in every sphere to the point that achieving pay equity for female workers is surely on any government’s to-do list.

The DHBs have understandably highlighted their offer’s upside: nurses with just five years’ experience could earn at least $90,000 a year, once overtime and sundry add-ons are counted. The nurses’ claims are just one of a slew of rising costs that DHBs face, and will always face. Chief among them are rising pharmaceutical prices: blow the budget on nurses, and there’s less in the kitty for other therapies. Balancing these competing demands for limited finance is never easy – for governments, DHBs or any employers. The demands on public money are bottomless. The purse is not.

Surely one part of the package the Government should consider is making limited compensation, as happens in cities such as London, for the cost of living in Auckland, whether the workers be nurses, teachers or police. That would help alleviate recruitment problems.

As this winter’s flu season hits, nurses need to be mindful not to erode their high level of public trust with industrial action that stretches goodwill too far. Front-page photos of anxious patients and stories of cancelled operations have the potential to dent the image of a profession held in high regard, and of workers New Zealanders believe should get a fair deal.

This article was first published in the June 9, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.