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Strike to end, nurses accept gov't offer

The Herald, 31 May 2000

ST. JOHN'S, Antigua - Antigua nurses were expected to end a five-day strike Tuesday after accepting a government offer which is said to include an interim pay increase pending reclassification of their status in the civil service and upgrading salaries as well as back-pay, according to a nurses' spokeswoman. "I see us coming out the winner and we got what we wanted," spokeswoman for the Antigua and Barbuda Nurses Association (ABNA) nurse Juliet De La Bastide told the Caribbean News Agency (CANA).

The strike, which crippled operations of the Holberton Hospital -- the country's main health care institution -- was expected to be called off, seeing the over 200 nurses, nursing assistants and ward assistants returning to work at the hospital and island-wide health centres.

Under the terms of the agreement, a government-appointed negotiating team headed by the Financial Secretary has been authorised to offer an interim pay increase of 600 Eastern Caribbean dollars (US$222) to registered nurses and EC$400 (US$148) to unregistered nurses from June 1.

The ABNA's proposals tabled last Friday had called for an EC$800 interim pay out to registered nurses and EC$600 to unregistered nurses but, according to De La Bastide, if the nurses had held on to that position "we would have been stuck."

In the Antigua and Barbuda health sector, a departmental sister is said to be earning between EC$2,622.47; a ward sister EC$2,343.09; a staff nurse (one) EC$2,120.14 and a staff nurse (two) EC$1,932.47.

The government negotiating team, which includes the Chief Establishment Officer and the Labour Commissioner, has been also mandated to "meet with the nurses representatives continuously until an agreement is reached" on a system of reclassification and regrading of the nurses.

A government statement said that once agreement has been reached on the formula for doing so, it "will become operational in 21 days" and the increases paid retroactively. The ABNA spokeswoman said the retroactive salaries would date back to 1997.

"The negotiating team has been told that the government is committed to pay arrears to the nurses in three tranchets and the dates for such payments are to be settled with the nurses," the statement from Prime Minister Lester Bird's office said.

In talks between ABNA executives and Cabinet, Bird deemed the strike "illegal" as under the Civil Service Act, it is illegal for public servants to strike.

Bird said he was "sympathetic" to the nurses "desire for increased wages and "greatly valued" their work but cautioned that "illegal strike action was not the way to achieve their objectives."

The nurses, however, said their strike action was triggered by government's apparent foot-dragging on the upgrading of their salaries and reclassification of their civil service status as well as failure to negotiate new employment contracts since the last ones expired five years ago.

The nurses were further angered when a batch of Cuban nurses, brought here to beef up the health care delivery system, were offered a US$1,000 (EC$3,700) per month stipend.

In that regard, the Prime Minister said he was "distressed" that the payment to the Cuban nurses was an issue with the locally employed staff.

Bird explained that the Cubans had to be paid enough to "make leaving home worthwhile," adding that they had to cater for their upkeep in the country they are working as well as their households back home.

Unlike the local staff, the Cubans will not benefit from pensions, gratuities and any other rights and privileges.