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Welcome! Veterinary Nurses To Unionise For The First Time

FIRST Union is pleased to welcome veterinary nurses as the newest group of workers to unionise in search of better pay and conditions. The role is historically underpaid and has been hampered by gender pay equity discrepancies that have resulted in stagnant wages and a devaluation of the significant skills required to perform the job to the standard required, FIRST Union said today.

Veterinary nurses work across Aotearoa supporting veterinarians in a variety of medical and administrative roles that encompass medicine, anaesthesiology, phlebotomy, cleaning, counselling, testing and numerous other responsibilities involved in caring for sick animals and stressed clients. They have not been members of any union until now and work for a range of different private employers with no consistent pay and conditions across the sector.

"Our first goal will be to unite veterinary nurses across the country and start setting minimum expectations for pay and conditions for upcoming negotiations with employers, including a base living wage for all workers," said Louisa Jones, FIRST Union Assistant General Secretary.

Johanna Bloxham, a former veterinary nurse, says there are systemic problems in the industry and pay rates do not reflect the hard work and breadth of knowledge required to do the job to a minimum standard.

"The paycheques don’t reflect the qualifications we’ve obtained and the knowledge and skills required to do the job correctly - the pay is usually less than comparable roles in the medical world that require similar tertiary education to enter, yet clients tend to think we’re really well-paid since vet bills can cost so much," said Miss Bloxham.

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"When I was vet nursing, I put my everything into my work and it broke me - I was really good at what I did and was so sad to leave, but I cannot go back to that industry until there is a change."

As a role predominantly filled by women, veterinary nurses are one of the groups of workers who every year begin to effectively "work for free" between November until the new year given an existing gender pay gap ( see footnote). Antoinette Ratcliffe, another former veterinary nurse who left the industry due to poor pay and conditions, says that historic gender-based discrimination was a major motivator of joining each other across brands and workplaces to unionise.

"I’m proud that our veterinary nurses have decided that enough is enough and we’re now making the first steps towards closing that gender pay gap," said Ms Ratcliffe.

"I know a lot of veterinary nurses have been talking about starting a union for years now, and these discussions usually have been centred around the low pay in the industry - it’s a good feeling to have support in our efforts."

Veterinary nurses have also felt the sting of Covid-19, with one current veterinary nurse (who wished to remain anonymous) saying a mass shortage of veterinarians and alert level restrictions had "changed the job overnight".

"Having to tell owners to say goodbye at the door, watching owners say a final goodbye to a family member from 1-2metres away - the emotional burden from those times is terrifying," she said.

"We’ve been were working on skeleton staff at my clinic and the emergencies just kept coming - we did ten-hour shifts with no time for lunch and barely a coffee, but still we showed up every day because it’s our job."

Veterinary nurse Kaiya Kirk also acknowledged that as an industry with low subsidisation in comparison to other general health providers and relatively low profit margins, the price of services may need increase in order to meet minimum increases in pay for veterinary nurses and others in the profession.

Footnote: For Māori women in 2021 (November 10) and Pasifika women (October 18), the respective "working for free" dates were even earlier.

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