Nurses in Algarve, Portugal strike against meager salaries, exhaustion

Nurses in the south district of Algarve, Portugal, held a one-day strike in an attempt to pressure the health administration to provide funds for better working conditions

May 11, 2022 by Ana Vračar
Portugal nurses strike

Nurses from hospitals and health centers in the Algarve district in Portugal held a 24-hour strike on May 5 in response to the Regional Health Administration’s (ARS) and the University Hospital Center of Algarve’s (CHUA) persistent ignoring of long-standing demands for fair salaries and workplace progression. The strike took place in major health facilities in Lagos, Portimão and Faro, in addition to health centers in other locations, and recorded a 70-100% adherence among workers according to the Portuguese Nurses’ Union (SEP).

According to Nuno Manjua (SEP), the main reason for the strike was the fact that the ARS and the CHUA refuse to take action to ensure that nurses’ working experience is adequately recognized and remunerated. However, Manjua stressed during a press conference, this is only one of the problems that led to the strike. Other grievances expressed by nurses include missed payments for their work in COVID-19 vaccination centers and inability to use leave because of staff shortages.

Another central issue is the unwillingness of the ARS and the CHUA to ensure that nurses with more working experience are granted salary increases. At the moment, nurses in most health institutions in Algarve are paid the same regardless of whether they have just finished school, or have 10, 15 or 20 years of experience. In spite of this, nurses with advanced training and more workplace experience are expected to take up additional responsibilities, leading to exasperation. “Nurses are only asking for what workers in other professions are already entitled to, for their years of service to be taken into account,” Manjua said to the press.

The SEP sees the high adherence rate to the strike as a result of the health administrators’ vacillating approach to the problem. Instead of making progress on the matter, some institutions went as far to increase the salaries only to cut them back again. One of such cases occurred in Lagos, said Manjua, where the CHUA administration recently cut senior nurses’ salaries by 200 euros, regressing from what was already achieved.

Such an approach by the ARS and the CHUA signals to the nurses that their work is not genuinely appreciated. Several striking nurses stressed that while they felt their work was honestly appreciated by their patients, they do not have the same feeling when it comes to the health administration, and they remain doubtful about their willingness to improve working conditions for nurses without workers’ pressure. The strike, on the other hand, was supported by the Communist Party of Portugal (PCP), who assured that they would intervene to secure funds for the workers’ demands in the national budget.

Shortages of nurses an issue at the national level

The strike is only one of the many actions that nurses in Algarve organized over the course of a month, including weekly protests called Indignation Thursdays. The SEP leadership announced that the industrial action should not be seen as the end of their efforts, and that health workers would be mobilizing again on May 12, International Nurses’ Day, as they intended to raise the alarm about the conditions of the nursing workforce in Portugal.

Algarve and other districts are all facing a severe shortage of health workers, especially when it comes to rural areas. This is cause for concern especially in the light of pandemic response and post-pandemic recovery, as many nurses are quitting their jobs because of bad working conditions.

According to recent research, published as the National Study on the Living and Working Conditions of Nurses in Portugal, the nursing workforce is already exhausted and on the brink of mass burnout. Of the 7,387 nurses who took part in the research, 25% worked at least 55 hours per week and 16% worked as much as 70 hours per week to earn enough to cover all their needs. Similarly, 23,5% of the nurses said they had to pursue additional jobs to make up for missing income.

“They work on holidays, they work on weekends, they work when they are supposed to be taking time off, they work in the morning, they work at night. This is completely unsustainable,” said the study’s coordinator Raquel Varela during a presentation.

Nurses’ workload is becoming so notorious that it is likely to undermine future recruitment. The SEP notes that at the moment, hiring new nurses is an issue, but retaining them is a bigger problem. According to the study, almost 70% of nurses would not recommend the profession to others, or wish for their child to pursue the same work path. In case there is no swift change of course by the health administration and nurses are not provided with better working conditions, it is likely that problems with recruitment and retention will seriously shake the functioning of the health system in Portugal.

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