Q and A with MERAS Midwife on Strike

Why are you striking?

MERAS midwives are striking because our MECA expired almost 18 months ago. In that time our union has tried to engage with the DHBs to negotiate the terms and conditions of our employment. The DHBs refused to engage with us, telling us to wait until they had settled the Nurses’ MECA with the much larger union NZNO which represents nurses, some HCAs and less than 15% of employed midwives.

When the nurses had voted to ratify their MECA the DHBs used delay tactics for another month or so then finally offered us the same MECA they had signed off with the nurses.

They did not listen to our negotiation points as a completely different profession. They failed to acknowledge the additional year of training and clinical practicum that midwives have at graduation compared to nursing (and the extra expense that training accrues).

The pay scales failed to acknowledge the fact that as a profession we have autonomy, make clinical decisions, plan and implement care, have prescribing rights, perform minor surgery, practise IV cannulation and phlebotomy as standard . . . the list goes on.

85% of midwives are represented by MERAS. We were told by the DHBs that they will not pay the same workforce different amounts. Therefore they are saying that the handful of midwives represented by the nurses’ union are the only ones to have any say over the terms and conditions of our employment, even though their voices are swamped by the thousands of nurses in their union and NZNO has never once fought to represent them fairly in view of their autonomy and professional responsibilities.

We are striking because 60% of employed midwives are stuck on level 5 of the nurses’ payscale. So after 5 years no matter what extra responsibilities you are given (e.g taking charge of the unit in a co-ordinator role) or extra training/qualifications you obtain you are NEVER paid any more.

There is no scope for career progression and our senior skills are never acknowledged or remunerated.

All of these things are so blatantly UNFAIR and WRONG that we have had no other option than to strike to make our voices heard. We are also striking to draw attention to the current midwifery crisis. The numbers and health complexities of pregnant women are increasing but the number of midwives is decreasing due to many leaving the profession for fairer wages overseas, equal wages in jobs with much less responsibility, retirement and lack of people being attracted into training because of the poor pay.

Staffing is so poor across the country that some DHBs have identified as a result of our strikes their NORMAL STAFFING LEVELS DO NOT MEET LIFE PRESERVING SERVICE REQUIREMENTS and during strike times are demanding that the union provide additional staff or an additional on call service that does not exist for the other 10 hrs of the shift !!

In other words these DHBs ROUTINELY STAFF MATERNITY UNITS WITH UNSAFE STAFFING LEVELS. It is a testament to the hard work and skills of the midwifery workforce that we have such high outcomes for our mums and babies.

There SHOULD be public outcry about this

What do you wish the public knew about your job?

I want the public to know that midwives are highly trained, highly skilled autonomous professionals.

I want the public to know that during the strikes most of us are working as normal because the vast majority of our role is considered “Life Preserving”.

I want the public to know we are all working extra shifts to cover poor staffing.

I want the public to know that there is a crisis in midwifery that is only going to get worse. Mums, babies and whanau need us. We need to be paid appropriately for our skills, training and responsibilities.

I want the public to know that we really care about the women, babies and families who use our services. We want the care we provide to be of the highest quality — we don’t want you to miss out or be put at risk because the DHBs refuse to staff the wards properly or fund our profession adequately.

I want the public to know that they have a role to play to support us in our struggle — to canvas their MPs, to make their voices heard, to join us on our picket lines.

I want the public to know (contrary to the media spin they may have heard) we are not knocking nurses, we just want the same rights every other profession has — physiotherapists, radiologists, teachers, police; that THEIR union bargains for THEM. Would a physio or doctor be expected to work under a nurse’s MECA? No? Then why should a midwife? We are also not knocking orderlies, cleaners and kitchen aides but with their 40% increase over 3 years awarded this week (which they are absolutely worth) once they reach the top of their scale they will actually be paid MORE than a fully qualified midwife who is responsible for the lives of mums and babies, has a 4 year degree with all the associated costs. This is insane and will definitely do nothing to encourage people to train as midwives.

I want the public to know that over the past 11 years of being a midwife in NZ my hourly rate has increased just over $2 per hour. Most midwives struggle to live paycheck to paycheck.

What’s the best part of your work day?

The best part of my work day is different every day, such is the nature of midwifery.

Sometimes it is just being a patient support person to a powerful woman harnessing her inner strength to bring her baby into the world.

Sometimes it is that I was passed a floppy, pale, lifeless baby and used my expertise to turn it into a pink, crying child full of life.

Sometimes it is seeing the joy and relief in a mum’s face when she latches her baby to her breast herself after days of struggling to get breastfeeding started, after hours and hours of backbreaking support from the core midwives. Sometimes the best part of my work day is the hug from a colleague after I have tenderly and respectfully helped a family birth their baby who has not survived in utero.

Sometimes the best part of my work day is cannulating that invisible, skinny vein first time.

Sometimes the best part of my work day is being able to drag my tired and aching legs out of the maternity doors and finally get some food to eat!

What can people do to support you right now?

People can fill out the postcards provided by our union to mail to David Clark, they can canvass their local MPs, they can join us on our picket lines. Most areas are planning some action for 5th December — contact your local maternity unit to find out where and when the pickets are.

What message do you have for David Clark?

I want David Clark to educate himself on how the maternity system in New Zealand works.

I want him to understand the different structures that make up LMC midwives and employed midwives and that together we make up a maternity service that has excellent outcomes and is the envy of the rest of the world.

I want him to understand our plight and the actual annual wages that the majority of midwives can ever hope to have — that most of us top out at $66,755 with no hope of ever being employed on the senior midwife scale despite clearly working at a senior level. He once quoted we earn $120,000 p.a which is completely untrue.

I want him to recognise there is a worsening crisis in midwifery in NZ that is largely due to poor remuneration and lack of respect for our profession.

I want him to understand that we are irreplaceable and so necessary that when we are on strike the vast majority of us are still working a normal day.

I want him to find the funding for the DHBs so they can give us a decent MECA that is unique to midwifery because nobody likes to strike but midwives throughout history are known to be wise, strong women who fight hard for their rights and the rights of women.

We are NOT going to back down.

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