While women dominate the caring professions, it has become the norm to ignore the presence of unpaid emotional labour
By Niamh Elliott-Sheridan
In Ireland, the treatment of our nurses has been a prevalent yet structurally ignored issue for
years. With many more in training called to the front lines, the global Covid-19 pandemic has
proved that the terms and conditions of student nurses’ journeys to qualification is anything
but just and fair. Students are the driving force for change within college communities, making public appeals for a wage, any wage, and adequate working conditions. Another
stressor added on to a role blatantly taken for granted.
Frequent discussion with my peers studying nursing at undergraduate level has informed and consistently shocked me, regarding the long unpaid hours put into both education and placement to complete their degree. And the worst part? We and all the institutions in society have known about this for a very long time.
DCU General and Children’s Nursing student Laura Swan described her experience within
the curriculum. In first year, she did five 35-hour weeks, sixteen 35-hour weeks in second year.
In third year, students worked twenty 35-hour weeks on top of their studies and external paid part-time work, with “no payment for any of it whatsoever”. Students are not offered an employee assistance programme, counselling or supervision in the workplace, outside of college facilities.
‘Studying’ feels like an inadequate term. Yes, it is study. It is hours in the classroom, library
and exam halls. It is also practice. It is perfecting hospital procedures because someone else’s life depends on it. It is time, it is energy, it is effort; it is compassion, care and kindness. It is blood, sweat, tears, and every other liquid you can think of. It is torment on one’s mental health, sleep routine, personal relationships and social lives. It is stress, it is love, it is passion and it is pain. And while in ‘training’, it is unpaid.
For business and technology students, year three is often completed with an external company placement, paid. These students, too, are not qualified. For some, it may be their
first step into the working world (at least in this career path). Student nurses engage in
placement from their first year of college. They have been on the front lines during this crisis, working 13-hour shifts, stepping up to what has globally been labelled as the worst worldwide crisis since WW2.
Though they had not completed their qualification (a pathetic argument), they were expected to work the same as those who have. In the face of Coronavirus, they along with other essential workers, are our heroes. But a round of applause is not enough for bravery and perseverance in life-threatening conditions.
As lockdown began, the government decided to cancel first to third-year student placements
and pay them as Health Care Assistants (if they took up the role). That is not paying student
nurses. That is paying HCAs as HCAs. Fourth-year students could not leave their front-line
placements as they would have had no time to make up the NMBI required hours. If they
chose to take the HCA position, they would not have completed their training mandatory to
graduate; a catch twenty-two.
585,000 unemployed people in a range of professions have been approved for the Covid-19 emergency payment, while other social welfare payments carry on as usual. There was no emergency or automatic payment for nursing students, no payment plan, and those who lost their agency work were not entitled to other benefits as they had not technically been laid off.
UCD fourth year supernumerary General and Children Nursing student Mav O’Connor
expressed her and her fellow nurses’ outrage a few weeks ago, before finally entering an
intern paid position.
“I am left drained mentally and physically…we have been told under no circumstances are we allowed work agency shifts in other hospitals due to cross-contamination,” she said.
Many like Mav have funded their education, rent, bills and travel off their additional paid shifts with agencies as Health Care Assistants. Mav worked 24-33 hours, on top of a 35-hour week placement. With that freedom taken away for safety measures, these students had no income for a period of time, each day a day too many. For a job that is physically and mentally taxing pre-virus, the international emergency takes this injustice to a higher level. Many final year students like Mav have moved on to paid roles, but the systematic issue remains for future nurses in training.
Mav continued: “This is all too much for any of us to handle. We shouldn’t have to fight with
every last breath to be treated fairly like other students and workers.”
“We are told that this is a vocation… the life we choose… we are ‘heroes’… I can’t handle it
anymore. All of us chose this career because we wanted a technical, practical, medical and
healthcare-based career. It’s so much more than just being kind and caring.”
We can’t ignore that women dominate the caring professions. It has become the norm in our societies to ignore the presence of unpaid emotional labour, the work and strain voluntarily put in to go the extra mile for a client or service because that is what you believe in. How can we begin to tackle the inequalities, pay-gaps and other working conditions when the obvious urgency for a labour wage, for the strenuous, demanding shift work is still ignored?
To help others, to forge a career, and to save our country, these students worked for free.
When this tumultuous crisis eventually comes to an end, we as a country will be losing the
future of our healthcare services. They will leave this country, to make better lives where
they are treated with respect, dignity and fairness. Introducing the HCA payment is not a
sufficient beginning. At the very least, it is years overdue, evidently not a top priority.
Observing the lack of governmental procedure in the past, combined with the minuscule
efforts of the present, we can predict the outcome once normality resumes. The daily struggles of healthcare workers will once again be side-lined, and governmental failure to
support them psychologically and financially will prevail. Fair treatment and pay for student
nurses is a battle we must all continue to fight.