Hungarian healthcare workers protest bad conditions

May 13, 2015

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Translation of an article “Black visit” (“Fekete visit”) by Eszter Herskovits, appearing in weekly print 168 óra on 30. April 2015. pp. 18-20.

The Independent Trade Union of Healthcare Workers invited nurses, paramedics and other healthcare workers to dress in black and protest the working conditions and humiliating salary of Hungarian healthcare employees at Normafa hill. The action is in solidarity with the initiative of hospital nurse Mária Sándor. They said: nobody else stands up for them, so they will stand up for themselves. But also for the interests of patients. “Black movement”, organized by them on Facebook activized workers with slogans like “Nurses! Paramedics! How long we will take it?” Nurses were gave comments to 168 Óra on the record: they are no longer afraid to voice their opinions.

The surroundings of Normafa has turned black. The nurses are gathering – with a clear objective: they want to protest against the bleeding-out of Hungary’s state healthcare system, as well as against salaries barely meeting minimum requirements. The situation of the Hungarian healthcare system is indeed a reason for grievance.

László Kiss, president of the trade union told 168 Óra that they were finally successful to get the attention they needed from healthcare workers. There were demonstrations earlier, but now all workers’ rights advocacy groups, professional organizations and workers in the trade stand up united.

Mrs. Ferenc Fabók – or as she is better known at her workplace, Gusztáv Merényi Hospital, Nurse Ica – started her profession 28 years ago. It was hard back then, but not that hard.

In the past 15 years, conditions were gradually getting worse. By today, everything is rundown. To put it in an ironic way, our infusion crutches are from the era of Manfred Weiss (founder of Csepel Ironworks Industry in the 1860’s / ed.). The Maltese Charity helps us out from time to time with beds scrapped from Western European hospitals. This is what they call the “modernization” of Hungarian healthcare.

Nurses and patients

In most healthcare facilities even working clothes are not provided. Nurse Ica bought her white t-shirt and trousers in a second hand store and this is what she is working in. They do not however dare to submit these “uniforms” to the hospital laundry fearing that they will never see them again. They get to change shoes in every few months as even shoes of better quality wear out in the daily 10-15 kms of walking in hospital corridors.

The nurses however still learn that they should take care of patients as if they would be family members.

But we are tired, and burned out. I am ashamed when I am explaining it out to relatives of patients about what to bring over, as there is no soap, towels, pyjamas or glass. I am even more ashamed of the fact that oftentimes patients have to provide even their own medication and infusion.

Nurse Ica told us, his eyes fixed on the ground.

From bed to bed

Tibor Gellai, a caretaker at the psychiatric sub-intensive department of Budapest’s Gyula Nyírő Hospital is speaking openly too.

A cheese cube, a slim slice of baloney and cheap bread: this is an ordinary dinner. Allowance for daily meals is less than a dollar per patient. The vast majority of patients were hardworking people throughout their lives and this is all that they get back now. How could I possibly be working in a good mood knowing all that? We who are still working in Hungary do so out of dedication to our profession and are truly doing our best for the most beneficial treatment.

Nurse Ica by the way, is working at the department of musculoskeletal rehabilitation. She usually gets to work at 6.30 in the morning even is her shift is only starting at 7. The extra half an hour is unpaid, but she has no choice as she needs to take the shift over from her colleague. After visiting all 30-50 patients in the department from bed to bed, she takes medical equipment over  and sings the paperwork off. At 7 the distribution of medicine begins together with measuring temperature, and installing infusions. By the time she finishes, the breakfast is in. She is putting the plates on the carts able to carry tons, pushes it out and distributes meals in the wards. This is followed by the doctor’s visit, or the so-called “medication.” This means she has to sort noon’s, evening’s and morning’s medicine per portions in boxes. She cannot be wrong while distributing the portions yet the process is interrupted regularly by the arrival of new patients or by the ring of the nurse’s bell. Until lunch, she is also supposed to compile the list of all extra medicine, rubber gloves, diapers and infusions needed. At best case, she gets to eat her own lunch at around 1 pm. In many cases, hospitals do not even have a separate nurses’ quarters only a diner. After the short pause comes to collection of cutlery, distribution of medicines and the change of diapers.

This is followed by administration duties. Nurses at average can spend 2-3 hours of their working day with this. At 4 pm she puts the dinner meals on the cart, and there comes a new round. She is supposed to count the portions and sign off how many meals were given out. After dinner, she makes another pass, checking on patient’s diapers, arranging catheters and if needed checking if bondages are clean. At 6.30 pm she makes another pass with the nurse taking up the nightshift around the wards, by then, bedpans are already clean.

The schedule is turned over

The following day, Nurse Ica is working another 12-hour shift. This is followed by two days of rest. On her free days, she gets up at 6 am instead of 5 am, takes her 12-year-old to school, does the shopping, cooks lunch, attends to cleaning the house. Her older child is 22 year-old but Ica has never taken sick leaves out with either of her children, because if a single nurse is absent from the hospital, the whole schedule is turned over. Her husband has a similar schedule. A few years ago, their younger child needed to be taken to school by the neighbor, and he was the one letting the child into the flat at the end of the school day as the parents were still off working.

Tibor Gellai mentioned a similar routine of day shifts at their department. There however a rolling admission system exists and that creates a lot more paperwork. The patient provides the medicine, but stock-taking, boxing and portioning all rests with Tibor. He is usually working night shifts for half a month.

At psychiatric patients, it is extremely important that they get some sleep overnight. We of course cannot take that liberty. Not only because of regulations but your conscience will simply not allow such irresponsibility.

When he gets home, he cannot fall asleep sometimes up until noon. Until then, he usually does to laundry, cooking, cleaning and is helping his wife out in household duties who is working day shifts. He however only buys groceries until the 20th day of each month. After that, they usually cannot afford it.

After the twentieth of each month, greased bread is usually a welcomed and much respected guest on our plates.

Tibor offered a bitterly ironic account of their everyday family life. He has three children, aged 15, 17, and 19. His wife is working in the social care system for many years, and she recently earned her degree. It does not worth an awful lot: a higher degree does not guarantee better wages or positions any more.

The schooling of the three kids, daily expenses, a bank account debt and a mortgage. According to Tibor, each and every one of his colleagues have taken out a mortgage, otherwise their lives would be impossible. Many of them often take up a second 12-hour shift elsewhere after finishing the first to help make ends meet.

Had it not been for my husband’s salary, we would have died of hunger long ago.

– Ica summarized her situation. With a national diploma of higher education and with 28 years of work experience, she is making a net worth of HUF 128 thousand (USD 474) per month.

Most of her colleagues are mothers, raising their children alone – as their life is not exactly family-friendly. Whenever possible, they apply for a salary advance, yet after the 20th of each month they too are usually left with contemplating whether a thousand forints per day is enough to cover the costs, or 500 forints would be quite enough for that.

László Kiss, president of the Independent Trade Union of Hospital Workers told 168 Óra that higher education degrees are usually not making a difference in the quality of life. Many hospital workers are earning a degree while working a full-time job. But it is all in vain: there are not enough management positions, or home-care vacancies, that they could really use what they learned converting it into cash.

There is no resupply of workforce at all. The career of professional hospital workers is anything but attractive. It could only be made attractive by a normal salary system. A hundred percent pay-rise would already be fair, even if this sum would still be well below the EU average.

Even though, the workers, dressed in black will insist on this objective until the end. Their weekend walking demonstration took them from Normafa to the Office of the President in Buda Castle. They were intending to inform president János Áder that the Hungarian healthcare system has collapsed. But the president was not welcoming the protesters, who nevertheless proceeded to sing the national anthem in front of the closed doors. The initial tone was provided by Mária Sándor.

At the end, Tibor Gellai remarked to 168 Óra that:

Even snowballs could end up in an avalanche, if they are downhill for a long time: this is where we are at presently.

As we can see, the avalanche is now unstoppable.

(Disclaimer: 168 Óra requested the Secretariat of Public Health to comment on the demonstrations, but they were unavailable for comments before our closing date.)