Updated 4.38pm with PN statement

The Health Ministry has triggered a clause that will require negotiations over a new sectoral agreement for nurses to be discussed before a three-person panel, as part of a conciliation meeting.

Conciliation meetings are a means of resolving industrial disputes with the help of mutually agreed upon mediators, and are provided for in the public sector collective agreement that also applies to nurses.

The ministry decision, announced in a statement issued on Tuesday afternoon, is intended to ensure normal service resumes at Mater Dei Hospital and other state-run medical facilities while negotiations with the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses continue.

MUMN-ordered directives have forced several hospital services to come to a halt, upsetting patients and in some cases prompting doctors to warn that potentially life-impacting procedures are being postponed.

While the union is under no obligation to suspend its directives while conciliation meetings are held, the ministry said that it hoped it would do so, “in the spirit of good faith” and to safeguard patients’ health.

The MUMN issued directives in March and intensified them in April, after it said that it was being “humiliated” by the government’s proposals in sectoral agreement negotiations.

A sectoral agreement signed between the nursing union and government in 2018 lapsed last December.

Negotiations to sign a new deal started last summer, and government sources say the two sides have since met 13 separate times to thrash out a deal. The last meeting was held on Thursday.

While the two sides are discussing several different issues – from pensions to the use of automated systems to deliver pharmaceuticals to hospital wards – the main bone of contention is understood to revolve around nurses’ salaries.

Nurses currently start out at scale 10, earning a basic pay of €24,600 a year. Their salary increases as they progress up the civil service pay grade ladder. At salary scale 6, they earn a basic pay of around €31,000. This progress often takes about a decade.

When all allowances are factored in, salaries rise significantly: nurses at scale 10 earn up to €40,500, while those at the upper end, at scale 6, earn €54,600.

Government sources claim that their most recent negotiation offer, which the MUMN has refused, would “more than double” the salary increases agreed upon in 2018, when the previous sectoral agreement for nurses was signed.

Sources declined to enter into specifics about the raises being offered or how far the two sides are from striking a deal.

“We have met 13 different times over the past nine months, and we’ve significantly upped our offer over the course of negotiations,” sources said. “Unions of course want to look out for their members, but we cannot have sick patients suffering while negotiations proceed.”

Conciliation meetings are among the dispute mechanisms provided for by the public sector’s collective agreement and are regularly resorted to in industrial disputes.

Meetings must be held within eight days of being called, and both parties are obliged to attend. Meetings are chaired by a three-person panel of mediators appointed from a pool of negotiators agreed upon by the government and the country’s seven major unions.

The conciliation meeting called by the government to try and resolve its dispute with the MUMN will be chaired by lawyer John Bonello.

Should the mediation bid fail – or should the MUMN refuse to suspend hospital directives while negotiations proceed – then the government could choose to head to court and request an injunction, which if granted would legally oblige the union to freeze its directives. 

PN: Don't pin blame on workers

In a statement, the Nationalist Party said that if the government was really concerned about patients' wellbeing, it should "immediately present nurses and midwives with adequate proposals". 

"The government cannot blame workers for demanding what they deserve and improving their working conditions," the PN said. 

If the government had managed to fork out €400 million to Steward Health Care to run three state hospitals, it should be able to find the money to compensate nurses, the party said.

The PN statement was signed by its MPs Ivan Castillo, Stephen Spiteri and Ian Vassallo. 

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