NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association Assistant General Secretary, Shaye Candish, gave this speech at the launch of the Providing the economic foundations for our regions report at Shoalhaven Hospital.
I wished to acknowledge that we stand on Yuin country, and pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet.
Firstly, I wished to congratulate Associate Professor Martin O’Brien from the University of Wollongong; as well as Arthur, Tina and the team at South Coast Labour Council for commissioning the report.
As a union proudly representing over 73,000 members – of which around 50,000 work in the public health system – we have long argued the overwhelming benefits of adequately investing in nurses and midwives’ wages.
Right across our state, public sector nurses and midwives have experienced low wages growth for the past decade, largely due to the NSW government’s draconian 2.5% wages cap.
Just last year, our members were forced to suffer the impacts of an insulting 0.3% wage freeze, despite grappling with an unknown health pandemic and significant events like the summer bushfires.
Despite those bushfires and the ongoing pandemic, like many other workers, our members continue aspiring to achieve a healthy work-life balance. However, little to no growth in real wages forces them to carefully consider personal budgets and their contributions in local shops, cafes and businesses.
Ask any nurse or midwife who has just finished an 8, 10 or 12-hour shift and they will tell you why their skills are worth every cent they’re paid and that they are definitely undervalued, in light of the work they do or the lives they save.
With a specific lens on the Illawarra and South Coast, this report further demonstrates why appropriately renumerating public sector workers, like nurses and midwives, is vital for this regional economy.
Not only do hundreds of members work tirelessly in this hospital behind us to keep this community safe, they are vital for the economic stability of this region. How well they are (or aren’t) remunerated also plays a major role in how health staff are attracted and retained, effectively securing the region’s future workforce.
Being able to secure an essential workforce, over the short and longer term, is still an ongoing battle for health. As a former ED nurse, I can assure you nurses and midwives don’t tend to choose a career in the caring profession for the pay – it’s often clear to patients that our professions are noticeably undervalued.
The very nature of nursing and midwifery roles require personal sacrifice, including working odd hours, weekends and public holidays. And yes, our members do receive hard-fought compensation in the form of penalty rates for those sacrifices – but they are very hard-earned.
Mid-last year, our state was experiencing the deepest recession of the post-war era. Impacts on household incomes, savings, business investment, government revenues and other key factors were projected to be catastrophic. The outlook was dire but even through the toughest of shifts – public sector workers, including frontline nurses and midwives, showed up day after night after day.
As a resident of this remarkably resilient region myself, I couldn’t agree more with the analysis outlined in this report, which notes: “public sector employment provides an important foundation and stability to regional economies”.
With eight public health facilities across Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District and a further 13 in Southern NSW LHD – it’s fair to say a significant proportion of this region’s public sector employment is in Health.
On the flipside however, it’s extremely unfair how the NSW government continues to pursue productivity gains at all cost, exploiting the work value of public sector nurses and midwives year after year.
Take the government’s own hospital activity data for example. Bureau of Health Information figures for the first six months of 2021 show emergency departments experienced unprecedented strain. 85,445 people attended an ED in this Local Health District (Illawarra-Shoalhaven) for treatment during that time – and almost 21,500 of those were through the emergency doors here at Shoalhaven Hospital.
Joyfully, 1,888 babies were delivered in this Local Health District between January to June this year, and 447 of those were in the hospital behind/beside us.
But speak to any of the health staff who work here and they’ll describe just how tough it is to work as a public sector nurse or midwife with the very bare minimum of staffing. It is heartbreaking.
It’s clear that health workers and other frontline staff are the heroes when it suits the NSW government’s narrative – but the realities of their invaluable work and the struggles they’re forced to contend with are unjust.
After all our members have endured, we’re calling on the NSW government to urgently invest in public sector workers through fair pay and better conditions.
We implore the NSW government to look beyond its preference of spending big on just bricks and mortar.
As a community we must demand this government adequately invests in public sector wages and implements nurse-to-patient ratios, ensuring regions like Shoalhaven can prosper well into the future.
This article was published based on the speech’s notes. You can check the speech against delivery here.