The nurses’ strike is about so much more than our nurses, writes Joyce Feegan.
Our striking nurse-force and our Government’s hardline response, which includes “legal consideration”, strikes right to the heart of two things: One, where we are as a society, and two, where we are headed as a country unless we change tack.
The Government says the money is not there to meet the nurses’ pay demands. It would cost the exchequer or, us, you and me, €300m a year to bring their salaries in line with other health professionals.
The nurses tell us they can barely afford to live.
Some leave the public health system to work privately. Many emigrate to earn double the salary in Dubai or Australia.
There is, of course, the well-trodden path to London too. This, after four years of taxpayer funded education. And the Government tells us they’re worried about money? Irish taxpayers have, after all, been paying for the training of NHS nurses for years.
This is about money and it’s not about money. It is about value, plain and simple, economic value: Who creates it and who gets a share of it.
Who creates value in Ireland? The politicians and policy-makers? The merchants? The hoteliers providing board to cash-rich Asian and American tourists? Those in financial services who trade in stocks and shares?The developers? Pharmaceutical firms who export their wares around the world?
Yes, there is value creation there, for certain.
But what about those who play supporting roles so that politicians and policy-makers, bankers and developers, hoteliers and pharmaceutical workers, can go out to work and come home to a cosy nest, where their children are fed and watered and their ailing mother has been visited? Do those invisible, unpaid domestic roles provide value? You bet they do. But do we pay them?
What about paid care work in Irish society, those who change nappies day in, day out, who engage and educate our children, children who will one day run this country, support our pensions and carry out our triple bypasses?
Do creche workers create value? Certainly. And how do we compensate them? We pay them, on average, €10 an hour. And we all hear about how hard it is for some people to change nappies, even when it’s their own child.
What about at the other end of the spectrum, the elderly? Their carers, those who change both nappies and commodes? Those who smile and talk to our citizens with dementia, and play both the role of carer and surrogate son, when visitor numbers are low? Do nursing home staff create value?
Absolutely. And how do we pay for that value? With about €21.50 an hour.
And then, what about official carers, those who keep their loved ones out of the €1,000-a-week nursing homes and free up spaces in the public ones? Do they create value and economic savings? Sure. And how do we compensate them? Their allowance is between €214 and €252 a week.
This is as much about storytelling and as it is about cold hard numbers. When it comes to economics, we are used to hearing about only one type of value creator.
When seeking a promotion or salary increase in work, you are told to approach the boss from the angle of what value you bring.
“I am a fee-earner,” you might tell your manager in your legal practice.
“I win business and clients,” you might say to your boss in the accountancy firm. You show the cash value you bring and you get your compensation.
In society, we’ve traditionally seen merchants and traders, financial service professionals and developers as the ones who bring home the bacon. And those who create value, are the ones who get to extract it.
But we are wrong.
If we are to live in a society that requires two parents to do paid work, and where people are living longer, we are going to need a better healthcare and childcare system.
And in order to have a better healthcare and childcare system we need to radically redefine who creates economic value, so we can compensate people properly.
As economist and professor at University College London, Mariana Mazzucato says: “Value is created collectively.” Not only have we forgotten this, we point blank deny it.
Because nurses don’t bring in export fees or pay corporate tax, we have dismissed their value. But anyone who has ever found themselves in a hospital ward, either as a patient or a visitor, will attest to the priceless role a nurse played in their hour of need.
The nurses’ strike is about so much more than our nurses. It shows us where we are as a society, namely that of rising economic inequality. It also shows us where we are headed unless we change tack.
According to the 2016 Economic Inequality in Ireland report, by TASC (Think-tank for Action on Social Change):
“Ireland, Denmark, and the USA had similar levels of gross income inequality in the period from 1945 up to about 1980.
"Since then the three have diverged: In the USA inequality has increased dramatically; Ireland also experienced rising inequality, though not to the same extent; while inequality has been relatively stable in Denmark.”
If we are headed somewhere we definitely don’t want to be America, where 80,000 homeless people in Chicago alone are currently bracing themselves against temperatures of -22ºC and where the only maternity leave is a protection of your job for 12 weeks, but nothing more.
America shows us the poverty that comes when you don’t invest in public services such as education and health, and when you put your head in the sand with regard to the reality and requirements of basic human care work.
But economic inequality is not inevitable.
In Denmark, with its small open economy like Ireland’s, there are much higher quality public services in healthcare, housing, public transport and education.
This provision of services, coupled with decent earnings, has led to far lower economic inequality and guess what else?
A sustainable and more competitive economy. But most of all, a better society.
This better society was created because politicians joined the dots between taxes, public services, family needs, and the cost of living.
We don’t just need to stand with nurses, we need to stand with ourselves, if we are to join the various dots that will inevitably lead to the better society, and economy, that we are all in need of.