WELLINGTON, Jan 15 (Reuters) – Nearly 80 percent of junior doctors across New Zealand walked off the job at public hospitals on Tuesday after a breakdown in union talks with the government over working conditions and wages.
The strike spotlights the difficulties Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government faces in delivering on its promise to pour money into social services and rein in economic inequality when it took office in 2017.
The centre-left government’s traditional union support base says sluggish wage growth and soaring living costs have left workers struggling, with teachers, nurses and court officials taking action last year to demand pay hikes.
“They want to have control over when we work, how we work and where we work,” said Dr Deborah Powell, national secretary of the junior doctors’ union. “We tried to resolve this without a strike but we were left with no choice.”
More than 3,300 government-employed junior doctors, of a national tally of 3,700, are staying away from hospitals and clinics after the talks broke down last week.
Some gathered at street corners holding placards calling for better working hours but there were no major demonstrations.
Thousands of surgeries, non-essential appointments, and other services have been cancelled, although emergency and life-saving services will continue as senior doctors are asked to step in.
Government hospitals asked people to limit visits only to emergencies.
Junior doctors, or resident medical officers, want to stick with existing employment contracts because they say new terms the government proposes would mean longer shifts and allow doctors to be moved to other hospitals without notice.
Their union said it had been in talks with the District Health Board (DHB) for more than a year in which payment for overtime, weekend and night shifts were also discussed.
DHB spokesman Dr Peter Bramley disputed claims that the agency wanted to move doctors around the country at will.
“DHBs are committed to being good employers supporting safe care and safe working conditions,” Bramley said. All DHBs would implement contingency plans to provide essential services during the strike, he said.
The union has already called for a second 48-hour strike for Jan. 29-30 in the hope of increasing pressure on the government.
The government is also holding talks to avert another strike this year by tens of thousands of school teachers after they rejected a pay offer.