More than 5000 nurses, midwives and supporters flooded Macquarie Street and marched to NSW Parliament House yesterday in protest for safer working conditions, including better nurse-to-patient staffing ratios.
The rally came on the same day as a 24-hour statewide strike organised by the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association (NSWNMA) after more than 180 NSWNMA branches voted in favour of the action.
“We have seen the hurt and destruction of COVID. We have risked our safety and the safety of our families. We have missed Christmas, we have missed New Years. We work 16-hour shifts, we have a break, we come back and work another 16 hours the next day,” said NSWNMA President O’Bray Smith.
“We continue to fight on for all of our patients, and now we have nothing left to give,” she said.
Smith also described reports of nurse-to-patient ratios of 1:38 (1 nurse to 38 patients), which is almost ten times higher than the 1:4 ratios in Queensland, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia. All four states and territories are headed by Labor governments.
Strike action was planned to ensure that a level of “life-preserving staffing” was maintained for all patients under the care of NSWNMA members.
The strike also comes after there were “no changes” from the NSW Government following the first strike on 15 February.
“The only commitment we were given is that they would get back to us,” said NSWNMA General Secretary Brett Holmes. “The minister [Health Minister Brad Hazzard] has made it absolutely clear to me that he does not support ratios.”
“Since our last strike, there’s been no changes, no improvement,” NSWNMA Assistant General Secretary Shaye Candish told the crowd. “Just a lot of undervaluing of the critical work you do every day.”
“Rather than engaging with nurses and midwives on the solutions needed, we have a government playing politics and management tying us in knots,” Candish said.
As well as improved staffing ratios, nurses and midwives are also demanding increased pay for all their efforts, especially after more than two years in a pandemic.
“The ‘thank yous’ and the applause do not feed our families, do not pay the bills,” said Auburn Hospital Branch Delegate Audrey Figures.
“We started this pandemic with the government crying to us for help. But now we’re the ones crying for help, and they won’t listen to us,” she said.
The Association is also calling for infants to be included in the patient count within maternity wards, and appropriate staffing ratios for midwives.
“On a bad day, you can have 1:12 for the ratio, with only one Assistant in Midwifery or an Enrolled Nurse,” said Campbelltown Hospital Branch member Nichole Flegg.
“If you think these ratios are shocking, please remember that in reality, these numbers are doubled in maternity. Because in these numbers, babies are not counted,” she said.
Protesters also demanded better support for rural hospitals, which are often significantly under-resourced and where staff are forced to work in dangerous conditions.
“We do not have a doctor on site. Virtual doctors treat patients through a TV screen. Doctors certify deaths through a TV screen,” said Warren Multipurpose Service Branch member Sarah Webb.
She also described the emotional toll of her work on rural hospital staff: “Rural nursing is dangerous. We are burnt out. We are forgotten and isolated and just trying to survive shift to shift. We are forced to make life and death decisions every day.”
“I am sick of being the nurse who decides who gets treatment first and who has to wait,” she said in an emotional speech.
Yass District Hospital Branch President Paul Haines also described the poor working conditions at his workplace: “We have an emergency department that is run by very junior staff. A hospital that is often run by agency nurses. A hospital where staff are so burnt out and dejected that many of us are looking for jobs elsewhere.”
“We have a hospital that goes from crisis to crisis, with no leadership or strategic direction,” he said.
The strike also brought into question the future of the sector, especially for student nurses and midwives hoping to enter careers as health practitioners.
“The outlook for a future in nursing is bleak. Many nurses currently practising are leaving the profession in record numbers, no [safe] nurse-patient ratios and lower wage growth (than the rising inflation) makes nursing in NSW a bit less attractive,” nursing student and NSWNMA student representative Elliot Gregory* told Honi.
“Bachelor of Nursing is an incredibly difficult degree. There are placements which extend into holidays and sometimes make up an 18-20 week semester… There are times when packed assignment schedules, exams and back to back placements combine to make University non-stop,” Gregory said.
“More can be done.”
A statement cosigned by NUS Education Officer Luc Velez, USyd SRC President Lauren Lancaster, UTS Students’ Association President Anna Thieben and UNSW SRC President Nayonika Bhattacharya also declared support for the nurses and midwives on strike: “As unions representing students, we welcome the industrial action taken by the NSWNMA in their fight for better work conditions and standards for our students’ future workplaces.
“As the student cohorts that will be filling these shortages, we expect a government that cares for students’ future workplaces, our students’ future colleagues and us students as future essential workers.”
*Names have been changed to protect the individual’s identity.