Nurses in Barbados from the Unity Workers’ Union (UWU) have been on strike since mid-December to demand better staffing and working conditions. Approximately 300 nurses and nursing assistants from UWU began the strike to raise questions that they believe have root in the deficit of trained nursing personnel.
The strike has caused disruptions in the work of Barbados’ two major hospitals, the Queen Elizabeth in Bridgetown and Bayview in Bayville, leading to a temporary return of retired nurses to work. As the beginning of the industrial action coincided with what became a steady rise in COVID-19 cases and issues related to vaccine hesitancy, the strikers have faced criticism for taking action at this moment. Yet, despite the scepticism of one part of the health workers, members of UWU were able to organize the first successful industrial action in Barbados’ health sector in recent history and force a discussion on the problems faced by the nurses.
Throughout this period of mobilizations, the nurses have sought to raise awareness to the different challenges facing the sector that are often byproducts of the staffing deficit. The quality and breadth of care provided to patients has been raised as according to healthcare workers, the lack of resources for the sector has often meant that patients themselves were asked to secure the necessary supplies for their treatments.
The staffing deficit also has a direct impact on the workload shouldered by nurses, which has only increased during the pandemic. Many have pointed to the structural challenge of emigration, wherein many nurses trained in Barbados move abroad to wealthier countries who have the means to pay them more and often provide them with better material conditions. For nurses, the primary way to curtail emigration out of the country is to listen to the historic demands of workers for better working conditions and recognition.
According to data from the Barbados Nurses Association (BNA), the island entered 2021 with a deficit of 552 nursing personnel. Considering that 287,000 people live on the island, it is a challenge that trade unions and the government have attempted to address. The government has favored a strategy of creating bilateral programs with other countries, notably Cuba and Ghana.
The country’s cooperation with the Cuban Henry Reeve brigade saw 100 health workers, not only nurses, go to Barbados since the beginning of the pandemic – with many more coming to Barbados before 2020. More nursing reinforcements have arrived from Ghana, from where 95 nurses were recruited in 2020 through a bilateral labor agreement. While the new nursing staff represent a valuable addition to the health system, especially during the pandemic, the remaining gap still raises questions about building and retaining a local nursing workforce by providing adequate working conditions and training.
Training and not retaining
Many of the larger nurses’ organizations, including the BNA, continue to stress the role that increasing interest in nursing among students, and ensuring pathways for professional development can play keeping nurses in the local health system, but it must be noted that such a strategy is unlikely to succeed if conditions in the workplace do not improve.
Unions like the UWU recognize the importance of training and education but have argued that if the newly trained nurses remained in the region, it would be possible to fill the existing deficit locally. However, they point out that more than 70% of the new graduates leave soon after finishing school, often snatched by unregulated recruitment agencies, in search of better jobs elsewhere.
The necessary improvements are unlikely to happen without adequate investment in universal public health systems, as has been warned by several trade unions and health movements long before the pandemic shed light on the painful consequences of understaffing in health care. The strike of the nurses and nursing assistants in Barbados is one of the latest reminders to take action on this soon.
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