First thing on a steamy Bangkok morning, an unusual sight in a city used to extraordinary shows of public discontent met the eyes of onlookers close to Government House, where the prime minister holds office.
Quietly with shy looks, modest smiles and the occasional giggle, hundreds of women and a smattering of men slowly gathered in orderly groups and sat patiently fanning themselves on plastic mats under umbrellas for shade from the sun. All of them were in nurses’ uniforms – white and clean, just as they would have arrived for work to care for the sick and injured.
“I love my profession, I work very hard and long hours,” one of the nurses told me, “but I also want a permanent position.” It was by far the most polite and orderly demonstration I had ever covered, and it was clear that most of the women would rather not be there. In fact organizers had said there would be around 3,000 nurses at the rally, but only around 500 had actually turned up by the time we left at around 9:30am. They said their colleagues hadn’t come, not because they didn’t support the cause, but because they didn’t want to disrupt the life-saving work at the hospitals where they’re employed.
The lightness of the mood disguised the seriousness of the nurses’ intent. They said they were women running out of patience, there to press further the case they’d already presented three months ago. Thousands of nurses across Thailand are working double shifts at short-staffed hospitals, but they’re still on temporary contracts. To put their situation in context, consider this: Thailand’s Nursing and Midwifery Council says that the country should ideally have approximately 30,000 more nurses to meet the needs of the Public Health Ministry’s medical facilities. In Singapore there are 250 people per nurse, in Thailand there are 600.
The impact has already been felt for years in many hospitals which have had to shut down wards because they don’t have enough nurses to provide appropriate care to patients. Some are said to have combined intensive care units for adults and children because of the lack of staff. Others have had to put patients in corridors to sleep because patient numbers have risen so drastically, the newspaper reports.
The nurses want job security, shorter hours, and they also want to be paid competitively. They’re paid a fraction of what they could get working in the private sector. The Nursing and Midwifery Council says they’ve even heard of nurses working for six months without pay, and they say the 17,000 temporary employees are threatening to resign if their demands aren’t met in the next 3 months.
The demonstration organizers set up a mobile stage with huge speakers blaring out what sounded like a nurses’ march. Speakers took to the stage one by one setting the crowd off to do a wave, chanting slogans and reminding the demonstrators why they were all there.
As we left, one nurse pointed out the government is causing its own “brain drain” by training nurses but then not giving them incentives to remain in the public sector. She warned that when labour movement becomes easier across south east Asia as expected in a few years, the government could find them leaving the country altogether.
So far, the government hasn’t responded to the nurses’ demands but if the nurses are to believed the public health sector is in a crisis that can’t be ignored for much longer.