TALLINN - Two Estonian medical workers' associations issued a Nov. 3 statement blasting Social Affairs Minister Maret Maripuu for failing to work with them on resolving salary disputes in the public health sphere and stating that the situation has reached the point where their members could legally strike.
The Estonian Physicians' Association (EAL) and the Estonian Medium-Level Medical Workers' Occupational Associa-tion (EKTK) said that salary negotiations held last winter ended without a result concerning minimum hourly pay and neither EAL nor EKTK signed a proposed pay accord from which resident physicians and emergency medical aid workers had been left out.
They added that collective agreements of the Estonian Nurses' Union and the Medical Workers' Trade Union covered only some nurses.
The EKTK wants the minimum hourly pay for medical workers set at 60 percent of a physician's pay, and both organizations want to see the physicians' minimum salary set at twice the Estonian average wage.
The associations added that they had asked that their demands should be taken into consideration when next year's state budget and the budget of the Medical Insurance Fund are drawn up.
"Unfortunately this has not been done and there has been no answer to our repeated appeals," the statement said.
"This is a very complicated situation because we had these negotiations last year and they ended this January without an agreement. As we have done every legally required process, we don't have to go through these negotiations again, so we basically have the right to strike," Katrin Rehemaa, head secretary of the Estonian Physicians' Association, told The Baltic Times.
The EAL and EKTK stated that they had attempted to resume the talks several times, thus assuming the Social Affairs Ministry's role, and that the ministry did not seem to be interested in the topic.
In their opinion the minister's appearance at the parliament's social affairs committee left the impression that there were no problems with public health financing and Maripuu therefore did not regard it as necessary to have an agreement.
A specialist from the Social Affairs Ministry, however, told The Baltic Times that the situation was complicated in that the state doesn't directly employ many medical workers, most of whom are paid by hospitals, and that the hospital associations also have to be involved in the salary negotiation process.
The ministry representative also said that it would be illegal for the two medical workers' associations to call a strike while a legal case they have initiated against the ministry is still in the appeals process.
For her part, Rehemaa said that the ministry's lack of response doesn't necessarily mean that a strike will be called.
"Saturday's [Nov. 3] statement was that the minister hasn't made any answer to our proposal, so we are still waiting to meet with her and discuss this issue. We think that it is possible to solve this problem without any strike," she said.
Rehemaa also said that the situation with doctors and nurses leaving Estonia is growing more acute, citing statistics that over 1,000 healthcare workers have applied for the document that allows them to leave the country to work elsewhere.
"There is already a lack of doctors and nurses, and the system only functions thanks to the fact that those that are there work more than 40 hours a week. This is the reason the system still works. If we started working normal hours, it would be a very big problem," she said.