Ground down and left in the lurch

September 7, 2023

I write to express my profound disappointment and dismay after reading the recent article “Disappointed primary health nurses pin hopes on pay equity”.

As a nurse who voted against this disappointing deal, I can’t help but share my frustration and utter disbelief at how NZNO has allowed the GP practice nursing community to be ground down and left in the lurch.

The article cites that Primary Health care (PHC) nurses were too tired to fight on after two years of bargaining and this admission alone is a damning indictment of how NZNO has failed its PHC nursing members.

Nurses, who work on the frontlines of healthcare, should not have to fight tooth and nail for a contract that acknowledges their contributions and dedication.

The fact that the NZNO allowed this situation to escalate to the point where nurses felt forced to accept an inadequate deal is a grave reflection of how NZNO treats this group of nurses.

It’s glaringly evident that NZNO has lost sight of its core purpose: to advocate for the rights and welfare of all nurses.

By coercing nurses into a dilemma of having to make a decision about their multi purpose contract or otherwise to let the contract lapse into individual agreements demonstrates a callous disregard for the essence of union solidarity and collective bargaining power that unions are meant to champion.

NZNO should have been a staunch advocate, ensuring that the interests of nurses were at the forefront of these negotiations.

The disparity in pay scales between different levels of healthcare professionals within the PHC MECA only serves to deepen the sense of betrayal felt by those who put their trust in NZNO.

The incremental pay increases are nothing more than token gestures that fail to address the fundamental issue of pay equity and fair recognition for nurses’ contributions, let alone the pitiful amount being given in backpay to these nurses when compared to their Te Whata Ora colleagues.

Furthermore, NZNO’s apparent rush to push the agreement through before the October 14 election smacks of a desperate attempt to pre-empt any potential legislative changes. This urgency seems to prioritise bureaucracy over the welfare of the nurses that NZNO is supposed to represent, further eroding the trust and respect that nurses should have for their union.

In conclusion, it’s with great regret that I have to voice my disillusionment with NZNO’s handling of the PHC MECA negotiations. The very organization that is meant to uphold the welfare of all nurses has failed to live up to its responsibilities as an advocate for PHC nurses, leaving many feeling unheard, undervalued, and unfairly treated.

Vincent Theunissen
Whakatāne practice nurse

Response from the PHC MECA negotiations team

One of NZNO’s senior industrial staff members who worked on the PHC MECA negotiations has written the following in response to similar questions and issues people have been raising on the PHC MECA Facebook page.

Were PHC MECA members under-represented in the negotiations? Were PHC MECA members pushed to accept a substandard offer?

Despite our arguments during bargaining, PHC MECA employers consistently stated they could not afford pay increases for their nursing staff on their current level of funding.

Te Whatu Ora initially left GP practices out of the “pay disparity” funding offered to community health services such as aged, hospice and home care and Māori and iwi providers earlier this year. Their view was that there was already a range of pay rates for nurses covered by the PHC MECA — primarily in GP practices and urgent medical/after-hour clinics — including above PHC MECA rates.

NZNO had to provide evidence to persuade Te Whatu Ora and the Government that was not the case for all nurses employed under the PHC MECA, and that GP practices should be included in the funding. NZNO also lobbied MPs and took every opportunity to meet ministers and Government officials to access the funding.

The inclusion of practice nurses was not confirmed until the end of June with the funding only being made available from July 1. The funding was intended to bring practice nurses rates to 95 per cent of Te Whatu Ora’s interim pay equity rates.

At that point, we were able to reconvene the bargaining and finally receive an offer for settlement from the employers. The terms of settlement then had to go through a complex sign-off and ratification — a lengthy process given there are 595 employers.

PHC MECA expiry

It is true that the PHC MECA expired in August 2021 — one year outside of the normal protection of its terms and conditions. Those protections stay in place for 12 months after the original expiry date, under the Employment Relations Act.

The PHC MECA protection period was extended under the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006, as we continued to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The MECA would have fully expired on August 31, 2023, leaving members facing individual agreements. That risked further collective processes, including a pay equity claim.

Why won’t work commence on the next PHC MECA, which expires in 10 months, until early next year?

Planning for the next MECA is underway. This will be informed by the strategic direction of the union, Maranga Mai!, which is for every nurse/member everywhere being paid equitably for their work, and having a safe workplace / manageable workloads, regardless of the practice setting. Working together will make this happen, with each part of the health sector standing up and being visible in the campaign for equity.

Did NZNO spend all its time and resources fighting for pay equity for Te Whatu Ora at the expense of PHC?

There was a long battle to get any pay increases for PHC MECA members. The timeframe of the provision of the pay disparity funding was not within NZNO’s control. We had pulled every lever available including the industrial action taken in late October 2022, and had not had any acceptable pay offers.

The protection of the collective agreement under employment legislation was running out at the end of August 2023. Without a collective in place there would have been no legal way of compelling the employers to continue to bargain. At that point, we would not be able to pursue any further improvements to pay rates. Individually the employers could begin to offer different terms and conditions — including reducing some working conditions in lieu of pay increases. Some hard fought for terms and conditions could be eroded quickly. The best protection members have is acting collectively and joining together to push for nurses’ work everywhere to be valued equally.

Further questions can be sent to: [email protected] or [email protected] and we’ll ask the person with the appropriate knowledge to answer them and post the answers on the PHC MECA Facebook page.