Slovakia's medical staff protest at salary cuts with demonstration in Presov

Health protests are sweeping across Europe. German doctors are dissatisfied with extra work and Polish doctors are demanding higher salaries. A year ago, the law on pay rates for health care workers was changed in Slovakia. Slovak medical employees started to be paid according to rates defined by the Labor Code. That has led to a significant fall in salaries for some health workers. Since last year, there have been regular protests by medical staff.

Following a call from health sector unions, about 1,000 health care workers gathered in Presov, east Slovakia, on March 15 to protest against cuts in their salaries.

Protests against the government's health care reforms started in Slovakia back in 2003. While Slovak patients were angered at having to pay for part of their stay in hospital, doctors, nurses and technical staff protested against cuts in salaries. Health Minister Rudolf Zajac says there is no choice, as hospitals are in serious debt.

Unions accuse the Minister of using salaries to solve the debt problem. The Presov hospital health care workers have been wearing a blue ribbon as a symbol of their strike alert since mid January this year. Stefan Hudacko, the head of the protest committee explains:

"The management unilaterally applied the payment measure as of January 1 and thus changed the remuneration system. This has resulted in a real decrease of salaries."

According to Hudacko, the strike alert was called in this hospital as a way to force dialogue. Unions refused a hospital management proposal to divide salaries into two parts, one combining fixed and flexible components separate from other bonuses. According to Peter Biros, the manager of the Presov hospital, no other health institution in Slovakia has provided its staff with such a generous offer.

"We have come up with a proposal for a 100% increase in the hourly rate for doctors on duty. We included it in the basic wage and thus the average salary in the Presov hospital is just over EUR 400 as opposed to almost EUR 350 in the rest of Slovakia."

Despite the management offer, most of the hospital staff have refused to sign up, and are going about their work wearing the blue ribbon in protest.

[nurse] "I wear it because we are not treated well and our work is underrated. Our wages are decreasing compared to the growing amount of work we are required to do."

[doctor] "The blue ribbon expresses our solidarity with the fight for a decent salary for doctors. It is not only about our wages but also about our social status."

[nurse] "We are expressing our discontent with the behaviour of our management. They have decreased our salaries, increased the number of duties, we are not paid for night shifts or for extra work on holidays."

Peter Biros, the manager of the Presov hospital and an MP in the Slovak parliament agrees that the wages in the health sector in Slovakia are disastrous. While other EU countries allocate up to 7% of their GDP to the health sector, only 5.3% of the GDP goes to the sector in Slovakia.

"In Slovakia, the health sector is the only one with no formal agreement between the employer, the unions and the government. This would solve the problem of salary rates."

According to the head of the strike committee at the Presov hospital Stefan Hudacko, the March 15 protest was not just a pre-election political game. Unlike their colleagues in other EU countries, Slovak doctors are not demanding a decrease in overtime, as they do not want to lose bonuses. In order to be paid better a lot of Slovak medical staff are going abroad. Although overall public opinion concerning health reform in Slovakia is positive, the drain of the qualified workers will remain a serious drawback.