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Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Midwives on Strike

Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place:

Midwives on Strike Need Our Support

You may have heard that midwives in the MERAS union are taking strike action at the moment. Since 22 November they have been stopping work for two hours, twice a day, and for very good reason. They are quite simply asking to be paid fairly for the work they do and for the skills they have.

What people may not be aware of is that a number of the 2 hour strikes have not been able to go ahead over the last week or so. Let me explain in more detail, because it’s taken me a while to get my head around this, and it’s important.

When there is industrial action in hospitals, DHBs (and in this instance we’re talking about maternity units) are expected to have the bare minimum staff working and available to ensure that Life Preserving Services (LPS) are maintained. This, of course, is intended to keep the public safe when health professionals take strike action. And of course, that’s really important; it’s a very top priority. However, what’s becoming apparent through this industrial action is that the level at which some units are expected to be staffed during the 2 hour strikes (the level of Life Preserving Services), is actually HIGHER than at other times. Let me say that again: in some parts of Aotearoa/New Zealand, to achieve the apparent bare minimum ‘Life Preserving Services’ requires more midwives to be working than are usually on shift. I find that astounding, and what it suggests – if it doesn’t make blatantly clear - is that some maternity units are understaffed the majority of the time.

Let’s explore this further. Let’s assume, for example, that DHBs are not deliberately understaffing maternity units, but rather that in some areas there simply aren’t enough midwives to go around. My first response to such a situation would be to find out why that is the case. Luckily DHBs won’t have to look too far in order to find out, because the midwives are shouting it loud and clear. In fact that’s exactly why they are on strike. Midwives are on strike because they are not paid or valued properly for the work they do. And it’s not rocket science to work out that people are likely to leave a job, resulting in a shortage of staff, if they are not paid or valued fairly. Understaffed wards are also incredibly stressful to work on, and funnily enough that can also result in even more staff leaving. Hmmm Catch-22.

A related issue is that if the number of midwives needed to provide LPS simply cannot be found, a strike cannot go ahead. In other words, due to the lack of midwives in some areas of Aotearoa there simply aren’t enough midwives to be drawn upon for the proposed 2 hours of strike action to happen. But let’s think about why there might not be enough midwives in a particular area for the staff to be found to provide Life Preserving Services. I’m sorry to be repetitive, but isn’t it precisely because of the underpay and undervaluing of midwives? And the associated problems with midwifery retention? And funnily enough, isn’t that exactly why the midwives are taking strike action in the first place? It’s just that in some instances they can’t, because there aren’t enough midwives to enable them to do so. Vicious circle aye?

Hmmm, it all sounds a bit repetitive to me. In fact, it sounds like a big mess that entirely justifies the reason why the midwives are taking industrial action– or at least trying to!

Our midwives are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They need to strike to be taken seriously, but often they’re not able to precisely because of the very reasons that they need to strike. This situation needs to be resolved, and resolved quickly, so that there are always enough midwives to safely staff our maternity units. It’s not just midwives who deserve this, but those who are pregnant, our babies, whānau and the future generations of Aotearoa. We need midwives. And at the moment, they really need us to stand by them too.

Anna Fielder (mother of 3)

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