Scores of striking nurses took to the streets of Bridgetown Thursday morning as they protested deplorable working conditions, late pay and other grievances, in hopes of forcing authorities to resolve their issues.
The peaceful march, which started around 10 a.m. and lasted just about one hour, started along Cheapside and ended at the recently opened Golden Square Freedom Park.
Under the watchful eyes of members of the Barbados Police Service, the aggrieved placard-bearing nurses from across the public health system as well as retired nurses chanted various slogans as they made their way through The City, receiving some support from bystanders.
Organiser of the protest, Unity Workers’ Union (UWU) leader Caswell Franklyn has already indicated that the nurses were looking at further protest action if their call today fell on deaf ears.
“We were toying with the idea of marching on [January] 18,” said Franklyn, who declined to confirm at this stage what the next step will be.
Stressing that the protest was not political, the union leader said it was merely designed to bring greater awareness to the plight of the island’s nurses and help push authorities to bring about change, adding that negotiations could continue at this time, even in the absence of a Parliament and in the midst of an election campaign.
“Politicians are not in place to lead negotiations,” Franklyn said.
“Parliament being dissolved has nothing to do with what is going on around here. It just means there is no Parliament but the government continues,” he added, pointing out that civil servants were continuing to work even as the country gears up to choose a new government on January 19.
He said the healthcare workers were willing to continue their industrial action until there is a resolution to their concerns.
Thursday’s march came after Franklyn complained that proposals and calls for meetings with authorities to negotiate for a solution for the nurses failed to come off in recent weeks.
Recalling the incidents leading up to the demonstration, Franklyn told reporters he had written to Director General in the Ministry of the Public Service Gail Atkins but received no response and then “the ministers took over”.
“I have gotten responses from Minister [Jerome] Walcott when he was Acting Minister of Health, and I have responses from [Minister of Health Lt.] Colonel [Jeffrey] Bostic who got called off when he was trying to meet with us. The only [person] who can call him off as a minister is only one person above him,” he said.
“We presented proposals to the Government. Minister Bostic wrote down those proposals even though he claimed he didn’t know what they were, so we told him again and he wrote them down and took them to Cabinet. The next day the Prime Minister claimed she don’t know what we are talking about. We didn’t send any proposal, but Minister Bostic presented them.”
Franklyn further charged that Prime Minister Mottley did not seem to want a solution.
“She wants a victory for herself. She wants to show ‘I beat them’. So when she can’t get her way she called an election,” he argued.
The nurses’ grievances range from late pay up to four months at a time; lack of adequate uniforms, cleaning and other items; lack of personal protective gear during the COVID-19 pandemic; deplorable working conditions; and a high patient-to-nurse ratio, among others.
Franklyn said some of the issues have been ongoing for several years.
“We want nurses to be better paid. A lot of them are single mothers who can’t qualify for a mortgage because the money is too low . . . . We have a duty to take care of these nurses, but they are not,” he said.
“We have nurses complaining about getting five masks a week, and you only supposed to wear a mask for four hours maximum. So you see they have to go and buy them. There are promises that they will fix that. There are promises also that they will start back the student nurses stipend.”
The UWU leader also complained that only a “select few” in the health care system received hazard pay, despite nurses at the polyclinics being the ones on the frontline.
He said despite COVID-19 restrictions limiting the number of people who could take part in the march, he was satisfied with the turnout and the support for the protest.
Democratic Labour Party (DLP) candidate for the City of Bridgetown Kemar Stuart who witnessed the march congratulated the striking nurses for “standing up for their rights” and Franklyn for coordinating the event.
He added that after the January 19 polls, the concerns of the nurses should be “priority number one”.
“My understanding from hearing both sides of the argument is that between the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health we are playing games with the nurses. I think this is deception and trickery at the highest level and the nurses ought to be heard and solutions ought to be brought to the table as it relates to paying the nurses and addressing the other grievances they have,” said Stuart.
Stating that the health care workers were important, he added: “I am urging the respective authorities to get serious and come to the table and address these issues.”