The current minimum hourly wage for nurses is just 11 kroons (approx. $0.60) - the same as it was in 1995 when the nurses got their last raise. Although most nurses are paid between 13 and 20 kroons per hour, the wage is still not enough, said Inna Rahendi, head of the professional paramedics' union ETKL.
The union is demanding that the minimum pay for nurses be raised to 25 kroons per hour. In contrast, the average hourly national wage in the second quarter of 2000 was 28.69 kroons. Nurses require a three-year education at a university.
Follow-up actions to the strike will depend on whether agreements are reached on the matter, said Rahendi.
ETKL members have appealed to Prime Minister Mart Laar, Moderate MP Andres Tarand, vice speaker of Parliament, Siiri Oviir, and members of the Social Ministry.
"The money we get - 11 to 12 kroons an hour - it's too hard to even call it a wage. It is too little to live on in modern times," said a head nurse at Viljandi County Hospital in southern Estonia. The nurse, who asked that her name not be used, assured that the nurses in Viljandi will participate. "We support the strike and will take part, because we think that it has a good chance of changing the state funding of medical institutions."
The strike will last only one hour, in accordance with national labor laws.
ETKL has reassured that patients will not suffer due to the strike. Nurses will be present at the hospitals to provide emergency care, and surgeries will go on as scheduled.
Rahendi said the discussion to raise the wage have been ongoing since 1996, but led nowhere. A labor dispute which unfolded in 1998 and remained unresolved put extra pressure on the talks. In Estonia, salary funds from the government are allocated to state and municipally-owned hospitals, but they are not instructed on how to distribute the lump sum among doctors and nurses and other employees. Hospitals, therefore, bear the responsibility of determining nurses' wages.
The Association of Estonian Doctors, EAL, which came out in support of the strike, pointed out, however, that the pay raise has so far been blocked not by hospital executives' indifference, but by the state health care's inadequate financing.
It is time to start investing in medical personnel and establish clear priorities for providing medical care, the leaders of EAL said in a statement. The association said that allocations to public health are not sufficient to keep the existing system functioning.
EAL urges the government to seek constructive solutions to raise medical workers' pay. In the doctors' opinion, the most important steps to ease the situation would be to improve medical services pricing mechanisms and conclude agreements with medical institutions.
In the statement, the doctors said they expected patients to show understanding in the hour the nurses are gone, as they will not be replaced. They stressed, however, that emergency medical aid would be available.
Viktor Sarapuu, head doctor at the Viljandi County Hospital, backed the action, saying that the strike won't affect the hospital's work, and that trade union activity in democratic societies must not be restricted.
"I think it is a positive event," he said. "The stronger the trade unions, the stronger the democracy."