Estonia should prioritise its poorly paid health workers and meet strikers' demands rather than courting EU budgetary favour
Estonians are not known for their political activism. We are a calm people with a deep mistrust in government, and usually believe that activism is going to lead nowhere, so why bother? Although average salaries are low – €700 net salary a month across all sectors in 2012 – workers' strikes are rare and never last long. The government is used to this and does not exert much effort in pacifying the strikers. What, then, drove all healthcare professionals in Estonia to begin a strike on 1 October, which is yet to be resolved and has taken both the government and the public by surprise due to the uncharacteristic resilience of the strikers?
Since Estonia joined the EU in 2004, a significant number of healthcare professionals have left the country for the greener pastures of better salaries and working conditions in other European countries. This means that we not only have an ageing patient population like the rest of Europe, but also an ageing healthcare workforce, who are left to carry the burden of present and future healthcare quality. This crisis has finally reached a climax, with all major hospitals in Estonia joining the national healthcare strike.
On 1 October, the strikers outlined a salary increase of 40% for nurses and care workers and 20% for doctors as part of their requested changes. Throughout the strike, the list of demands have been dropped to merely having paid working hours for medical students in residency, and an hourly wage of €2.60 (a 23% increase) for care workers, €4.50 (17.5%) for nurses and €8 (11%) for doctors from January 2013. While this is a challenge for the state budget, these are hardly unreasonable demands.
Care during the strike is of course still provided in A&E, oncology, prenatal and intensive care unit departments, with healthcare professionals taking it in turns to strike during their office hours. The impact on patients is significant, as the waiting lists for appointments outside of private healthcare can be a matter of months – and if an operation is needed, the wait is even longer. The backlog in scheduled appointments that this strike has caused is going to take well into 2013 to clear, and is causing distress for patients across the country. After all, the strikers are essentially denying patients their basic human right of medical care, in an attempt to secure the attention of the government.
The government, however, seems to be waiting for the healthcare professionals to back down, instead of focusing on meeting the financial needs of the healthcare system by motivating workers who are planning their careers in Estonia. Even the president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, has expressed concern [story in Estonian] regarding nurses and care workers' salaries, which are dismal. If the head of state has publicly expressed such a view, why does it take a month of denying patients access to long-awaited operations and consultations to argue about this, with no resolution in sight?
Stringent recession-time budget guidelines are being given as the reason for not being able to meet the strikers' demands. But should the government not prioritise the health and wellbeing of its citizens over EU budget targets to ensure the country's successful and prosperous development? The government has so far offered [story in Estonian] an increase of 13.7% for care workers, 9.7% for nurses and 6.1% for doctors, which is far from the strikers' original demands. Should the reluctance of the government to lose face within an EU cost savings context in this strike be taken as an expression of their low prioritisation of the health of their citizens? I think it should. And I think it is time the European Union took notice of this.