Health workers in Québec strike for better working conditions

Health workers in Québec join wave of public sector industrial action in bid to secure better working conditions, personal life-work balanc

November 09, 2023 by Peoples Health Dispatch
FIQ members during a protest for decent working conditions in September 2023. (Photo: FIQ Santé)

Health workers in Québec began a two-day strike on November 8, following unsuccessful negotiations with the government. Members of the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ) repeated their demand for a fair deal for health workers at the end of October and vowed to keep the pressure up until significant improvements are made to working conditions in the sector.

During discussions that have taken place since an earlier collective agreement expired in March, the Québec government failed to address the main concerns of the health workers, including nurses, respiratory therapists, and clinical perfusionists. 

“At a time when the health network is falling apart, when professionals are sacrificing their physical and mental health to provide care to patients, and when the quality of that care is in jeopardy, this proposal demonstrates the government’s lack of respect for a workforce mainly composed of women,” stated Julie Bouchard, President of the FIQ, in a conversation with Public Services International before the beginning of the strike. 

While the workers demanded better staff-to-patient ratios and improved valorization of shift work, the government tabled options that would allow health workers to be reallocated to different workplaces independently of their wishes. As the trade union warned, this would be another blow to workers’ personal life-work balance, which is already under pressure due to workload and, in some cases, having to work more than one job to make ends meet. 

The trade union pointed out that the issue is not strictly a shortage of health workers, as there are currently more than 80,000 nurses, 4,500 respiratory therapists, and about a hundred clinical perfusionists in the Québec region. Instead, the problem is that the working conditions in the public sector are bad enough to push health workers toward other options.

Earlier this year, the regional government itself published data showing that more than 20,000 health workers left the health system in less than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to increased wait times for specific surgeries and the closure of hundreds of hospital beds. 

The government tried to frame the exodus as a result of postponed retirements, saying that nurses who were supposed to retire waited until the pandemic had subsided before doing so and offering little response except to announce more international recruitment.

On the other hand, trade unions said that the drop in number of health workers had more to do with working conditions and burnout, which could only be addressed by systemic improvements to the healthcare system. 

Without a significant shift in the government’s approach, FIQ officials repeated on various occasions, there will be no improvement in the ongoing trends, and both the quality of care and working conditions are certain to deteriorate. 

The health workers’ strike is continuing a wave of industrial action launched at the beginning of the week by public sector trade unions under the umbrella of the United Front, which is demanding an adequate response to the increasing cost of living.

On Monday, November 6, more than 400,000 public sector workers, including those in education and social services, halted work to pressure the government. 

In the lead-up to the strike, the government proposed a 10.3% salary increase over 5 years – a little over 2% each year, which does not even reach the most recent inflation rate of 3.8%. Calling out the government for its disregard of public services workers, the trade unions have already announced a second wave of action in the 3rd week of November. Health workers are certain to join in again, with FIQ announcing a second 48-hour strike between November 23 and 24. 

People’s Health Dispatch is a fortnightly bulletin published by the People’s Health Movement and Peoples Dispatch. For more articles and to subscribe to People’s Health Dispatch, click here.