Ireland: Student Nurses and the ‘race to the bottom’

The government had decided as far back  as December last year, when their latest drastic budget cuts were presented and passed, to turn student nurses into ‘free labour’, or, as the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has rightly called it, ‘slave labour’.

Student nurses get now 80 percent of the minimum staff rate (just over €16,000) during a mandatory 36-week placement in the final year of their degree. According to a new plan their pay is going to be reduced in phases to 40 percent in 2014 and finally to nothing before the ending of 2015.

Around 6000 student nurses work at present in Irish hospitals, but it will be those who come after them who will be getting the hit. On Wednesday, they came out in at least 13 locations nationwide to protest against this attack on labour. Their action had a strong element of solidarity with future generation of student nurses, who will be used as ‘slave labour’. But their solidarity was extended to all Irish nurses, to patients, and to Irish labour in general. This crisis is being used to increase the pace of a ‘race to the bottom’ (in wages and working conditions but also in services) that was already in full swing in the last decade of the Celtic Tiger.

As it is, student nurses are already used to replace qualified nurses on full wages. These ‘free nurses’ will not be able to say ‘no’ to working for free because their work placements are mandatory, if they want to get their degrees. But student nurse and their union have stepped forward and say ‘no’ to the ‘race to the bottom’.

They have chosen election time to stage their protests, when politicians are more sensitive and they promise more than they are normally ready to do. Some politicians try to be ‘realistic’ and argue that they can’t promise anything because of the ‘financial reality that the country is facing’. But they also add that they will look into it and see what they will be able to do in order to reverse such decisions. ‘If the economy improves, if the budget is balanced... then, we will see’.

In fact, Mary Coughlan, Tánaiste and Minister for Health, has quite quickly come forward and said that her department will review ‘the rationale for the total abolition of clinical placement payments to student nurses’. In her new and latest opinion, some level of payment to student nurses should be kept. So, she intends that ‘a revised proposal will then be brought to Government that will be self-financing and contained within the parameters of my Department's four-year current budget allocation’.

The pressure put on the government, therefore, has had some effect. But student nurses would just be at the mercy of whoever comes after Mary Coughlan. The INMO has advised members and supporters to only vote for parties that promise to reverse the planned pay cuts. But that is not enough. The best guarantee is to keep the pressure up until the cut are reversed. So, next Wednesday, 16th February, they are planning to march to the Department of Health and make a protest as a part of their campaign to reverse the cuts, including those that will be introduced in 2011.

The student nurses need the support of all the workers because we all are facing the same problems. Sooner or later a much larger and nationwide protest and strike movement must begun the fightback against the ‘race to the bottom’ that bosses, speculators, and their political parties are increasing with the excuse of the economic crisis.

Political commentators, journalists, official economists, all the politicians of the establishment, the IMF, and the EU central bank say that the only way is their way – more sacrifices for workers. They argue that in two, three or four years the economy will recover and we will go back to the good old times, which were certainly good for them. Do we have to wait three or four years to see that there is no turning back from the global ‘race to the bottom’?

Source: Fightback (Ireland)