Are student nurses being exploited?

Anger and frustration has been growing over the last week after the Dàil voted against increasing pay for student nurses during the coronavirus pandemic. The motion to increase student nurse’s wages to €14 an hour was lost by 77 votes to 72 last Wednesday. This has left many students working long hours on the frontline of a pandemic, while surviving on far below the minimum wage. Are these student nurses being exploited?

Who voted for and against the motion?

The motion to increase student nurse’s wages was supported by Sinn Féin, The Labour Party, the Social Democrats, Solidarity-People Before Profit and all independent TDs. While Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and The Green Party voted against it. 

Since the decision, there has been a lot of anger by the politicians who voted in favour of the pay increase, as well as from unions supporting nurses. Many politicians have spoken out on how outrageous it is to expect student nurses to work during a pandemic, on 50 a week, while they are also expected not to take on other jobs.

“Slave labour”

After the vote, Labour leader Alan Kelly described the working conditions of student nurses as “slave labour” while  TD Mick Barry said that they were being treated like “skivvies”.  

Earlier this year the Irish nurses and midwife organisation released a statement warning the governemnt to “stop exploiting our student nurses and midwives.” The statement went on to declare “our students are being taken for granted, they are facing huge workloads and risking COVID infection, and while they are doing indispensable work, they are getting no financial recognition for their efforts.” 

However, aside from unions and politicians there is no group more frustrated than student nurses themselves. Hannah McKiernan is a student nurse from Belfast and has been working throughout the pandemic. Hannah currently works 37.5 hours a week on her placement, she receives just £430 a month for this work which roughly works out at around £2.50 an hour.  

These 37 hours also don’t include the second job she has had to take on to try to financially support herself while studying.

Student nurses have less rights than qualified nurses during the pandemic

Hannah tells me that it is hard for all healthcare staff  through the pandemic, but even worse for student nurses as they have less control over their work. Hannah explains student nurses aren’t given a choice on where they are sent. She tells me  “there have been lots of people in my class who had to shield during the first lockdown for medical reasons yet are being sent to covid positive wards for their placements which puts them in dire risk.” She goes on to note that if these “were employed nurses they wouldn’t be expected to work as they’re vulnerable occupational health would never allow it”.  

She also explains that there are different expectations for student nurses, stating “if you miss time off placement due to isolating or having covid you still are expected to make those two weeks up somewhere, however, within the trusts if you miss time off due to covid it doesn’t go down as a sickness and you still receive full pay.”

The whole system needs to change”

Hannah is frustrated about the lack of financial support she receives as a student nurse. She tells me that she believes student nurses should receive full pay and that she doesn’t understand how working for £2.54 an hour is not “illegal”.  She also notes that the “bursary that student nurses have received has been the same for over 20 years and it no longer reflects the increase in the cost of living which has led to the increase in minimum wage across the UK and Ireland.”

As with many other student nurses Hannah believes it is impossible not to work any other jobs outside of her placement, as universities often expect and advise students to do, stating “I don’t know anyone who could live off 430 a month.” Hannah explains that “this is such a big deterrent for people to not go into nursing as it’s just not economically feasible” and adds “the whole system needs to change in order to encourage people into nursing which will only have a positive impact on the health service”.

“71% of 4th year student nurses and midwives in Ireland are considering leaving the country.”

Hannah is not alone. In 2018, a survey found that 71% of 4th year student nurses and midwives were considering leaving the country. The study showed that 79% of them identified increases in pay and improvements in staffing and working conditions as the required incentives to retain nurses and midwives in the public services. Additionally,  76% of those surveyed found that staffing levels are not adequate to support the learning of student nurses and midwives in the clinical setting 

Are student nurses being exploited?

Hannah is just one of thousands of student nurses who feel they have been let down by the government during this pandemic. In one of the most crucial times for healthcare, student nurses working on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic feel like they have been taken for granted. As such a pivotal part of society, especially during a time when hospitals are being pushed to their limits, these nurses are working long hours for well below the minimum wage. As Independent TD Sean Canney said on Wednesday “we are all in this together, and the student nurses and midwives need to be there too, we must ensure we treat them with the dignity they deserve.”

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Aoife McDowell
Aoife McDowell

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