ANMJ Featured Story

Nurses uniting to better healthcare globally

Wednesday 24th January, 2018

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), along with three of its branches, the ANMF Victorian Branch, the Queensland Nurses and Midwives’ Union (QNMU) and the New South Wales Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA), are founding members of Global Nurses United (GNU).

Formed in 2013 by 14 nurses’ and healthcare workers’ unions across the world, the GNU’s stated aims are to unite in the fight against austerity measures, privatisation and cuts to health services; to fight for universal healthcare as a human right for all; safe patient care; mandated safe nurse-to-patient ratios and safe healthcare workplaces.

Today,GNU is now made up of 21 member countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Greece, Honduras, Ireland, Israel, Kenya, New Zealand, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, United States and Uruguay.

On behalf of the ANMF, NSWNMA Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda and I attended the 5th annual meeting of GNU, hosted by the Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la Santé du Québec (FIQ) in Quebec, on 1-2 December 2017.

At this meeting we discussed progress on critical issues and re-affirmed our commitment to economic and social justice, our opposition to the adverse effects of income inequality, poverty, maldistribution of wealth and resources, attacks on public workers, and the ravages of climate change.

Together, the GNU members considered the devastating impacts of climate change and environmental degradation for our patients and our practice around the globe. The World Health Organization currently estimates more than seven million people worldwide die every year from air pollution while the number suffering the effects of droughts, extreme temperatures, increases in vector-borne diseases, flooding, rising sea levels, bushfires and ‘super’ storms is growing exponentially.

We agreed climate change and environmental degradation currently posed a grave threat to public health, which requires an urgent and a radical response. We resolved to advance the following collective agenda:

•     raise awareness of the environmental/climate emergency among our members and in our communities, with an emphasis on public health;

•     engage our organisations and involve our members in local, regional and national campaigns for environmental and climate justice;

•     build alliances and stand in solidarity with frontline communities, including indigenous peoples and right to culture;

•     continue to support climate ‘first response’ work in the aftermath of extreme weather events; and

•     engage in international forums and campaigns as GNU to elevate the progressive voice of nurses, build international solidarity, and collectively demand climate action at the inter-governmental level.

Workplace violence against nurses, the attack on nurses’ rights to organise and bargain effectively and the fight for optimal nurse staffing for safe patient care were also main topics for discussion. All GNU member countries grapple with these issues, many dealing with much worse situations than those we face in Australia.

I reported on the progress we had made on these issues in Australia. This included Victoria’s 10 Point Plan to End Violence and Aggression; the achievement of legislated ratios in Queensland, Victoria and in NSW’s public health system nurses’ and midwives’ Award; and, while under considerable recent attacks from conservative governments, the right for nurses and midwives to organise and bargain through their union.

As I gave my report and listened to the reports from other countries, I had cause to reflect on how significant nurses’ and midwives’ achievements in Australia have been, and how fortunate, living in this country, we are.

Many other countries face situations that, truly, we can’t even begin to imagine. In some Central and South American countries, they have nurse-to-patient ratios of 1:20, 1:30 and even 1:40 in their major acute hospitals. They deal with horrific levels of violence both within their communities and directed at healthcare workers – Guatemala reported five nurses and doctors had been killed in their main emergency department because a member of an organised crime gang was being treated in the department. Many reported they were under threat of physical violence from their own governments for being union leaders and activists defending the safety of their patients.

Honduras was not able to attend the meeting because of the terrible situation in their country, but the GNU signed a statement of support denouncing the violent repression of the Honduran people by the armed forces and military police following a presidential election in late November.

The ‘elected’ administration had abolished hard-won labour rights of public sector nurses with the intention of limiting their ability to care and advocate for their patients with deleterious impacts on the health of Hondurans. Dozens of human rights defenders including nurses protesting these threats to Honduran health and democracy have been killed in targeted assassinations.

Listening to these accounts, including the struggle US nurses have with Trump seeking to remove Obamacare and nurses in Quebec being threatened with dangerously low staffing in their mental health units, I wondered what contribution I could possibly be making to improve their situations.

Though, I must admit when I reported on Australia’s situation in aged care, there were much stronger parallels with the stories of many other countries.

I had cause to reflect again – just how shameful our aged care situation is. That we could be treating our elderly so disgracefully in a country as fortunate as ours, so safe and prosperous, where nurses and midwives are genuinely setting the benchmark for the rest of the world in terms of the delivery of safe and quality care. I was reminded – we still have much to achieve.

My GNU colleagues were interested in this, although, comparatively, we have achieved so much, Australian nurses, midwives and carers still have work to do. They were interested in understanding how we had achieved staffing ratios, safer workplaces, and stronger union rights and how we intended to pursue further achievements. I realised this was the contribution we, the ANMF, could make.

By sharing our successes and how we achieved them, especially the struggles it took, and standing in solidarity with our global colleagues we could aim to make improvements for nurses and midwives everywhere.

Because that is our aim as a member of GNU, to confront and work to overcome our challenges at a local level and to support our international colleagues, especially those less fortunate than ourselves, to do the same to make a global difference.

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