Colette Sheridan: Nursing may be vocational but trainee nurses deserve to be paid

Using student nurses to prop up a struggling healthcare system is a travesty
Colette Sheridan: Nursing may be vocational but trainee nurses deserve to be paid

AT OUR SERVICE: Nurses, including trainees, have played a vital role in tackling the pandemic

LYING on my broken back in hospital a couple of years ago, all I wanted were pain killers and water.

It took a few days to get my bearings and to note the rhythm of hospital life. Sleep could be hard to come by, particularly in the early morning when nurses, taking over from their colleagues on the night shift, would come into the ward, open the curtains, set up the medication trolley and crank the patients into a new day, sometimes a groundhog day.

But more often than not, I’d make a bit of progress, like being able to sit up, albeit resting on a mattress that was raised by the click of a switch.

It was an experience that was made bearable by the good cheer, confidence and competency of the nurses on duty and later, the cajoling of a physiotherapist who told me I’d be “flying in no time”.

It took a while before I took flight. But my memory of being a patient that hot summer of 2018 is not entirely negative. And that’s down to the staff, most notably the nurses, that tended to me selflessly.

Nursing really is a vocation. It takes unyielding kindness to work as one. Is this why student nurses (and midwives) are treated so appallingly, not being paid apart from €50 a week in a minority of cases?

Many student nurses get a risible allowance of €15. Is it that vocational aspect of the work which makes it acceptable for it to be carried out virtually for free? Are student nurses — who work just as hard as qualified nurses — supposed to be appeased by being clapped and lauded for their labour?

Well, they are not willing slaves despite the government voting down a Solidarity People Before Profit motion to support pay for student nurses last week.

When I was in hospital, a couple of student nurses told me and the two other patients in the ward how they struggled financially. As they were not from Cork, they couldn’t live at home.

To pay their rent, they had to do part-time jobs — and they worried about their student debt.

You might think it was unprofessional of them to complain about their working conditions to patients. But it was us who asked the questions. When we learned they were student nurses as opposed to qualified ones, we wondered what the difference was in terms of work. There was no difference. They were carrying out the same tasks as their qualified colleagues.

Now, with the pandemic, student nurses put their lives at risk in the workplace — and for no recompense. It is a travesty, using these people to prop up a struggling healthcare system.

Thankfully, up to 4,500 student nurses who were forced to give up part-time work as a result of the pandemic will be eligible for the Pandemic Unemployment payment, backdated to when they left their jobs.

But this is small beer in the wider context of trainee nurses being exploited for years.

Is it any wonder that 71% of student nurses and midwives surveyed in 2018, said they would leave the country once qualified? We need our nurses. But when a sector is so undervalued, it is inevitable that those at the heart of it are going to go elsewhere.

Writing trenchantly in The Journal last weekend, a second year student nurse, Chloe Slevin, said that she used to wonder why so many nurses left Ireland. “It never made sense to me that they would leave when they are so desperately needed here, but now I plan to join them.”

Chloe addressed the argument that nurses’ placements are purely educational and that many courses involve unpaid placements as part of the training.

“I have never agreed with unpaid placement, especially after seeing the worth of my own contribution to understaffed wards,” she said. “Covid-19 has only led us to the breaking point.

“Regular college placements may require time in an office or a lab, however, ours includes filling staff gaps and having people’s lives in our hands.”

She adds that while her peers in other courses “get the desired ‘college experience’, we must work unpaid full-time placements, on top of our part-time jobs, in an extremely academic environment.”

Chloe feels that the government doesn’t care about student nurses. “Their disgraceful vote is leaving students all over Ireland starving themselves, being kicked out of their homes and losing their jobs, and their only argument for this is they don’t like People Before Profit? It is shameful.”

This government is out of touch with the reality of many workers’ lives.

As Chloe asks, does our health minister realise that €50.79 a week towards accommodation costs for some trainee nurses “will just about get you a cardboard box nowadays?”

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