Talks resume in Poland’s healthcare row

Talks between the Polish government and striking doctors and nurses are set to resume on Wednesday, following a proposal by the health minister to raise salaries next year.

If the proposal is accepted, the tent city of protesting nurses that sprang up across the street from the prime minister’s office in central Warsaw could disappear, but the growing pressure to increase public sector wages will not.

Nurses have been protesting for more than two weeks. Doctors have been on strike for seven weeks, dozens are on hunger strike and hundreds more refuse to work in the public system. About 300 of Poland’s 800 hospitals are affected.

Miners at the money-losing state-owned Kompania Weglowa coal mining company want a 30 per cent rise. Teachers are also calling for higher pay.

Public sector workers are looking to the private sector, where salaries in May rose at an annual rate of 8.9 per cent.

Poland’s central bank last week unexpectedly raised interest rates by a quarter point to 4.5 per cent, its second increase in three months, noting that wages were rising faster than labour productivity.

The finance ministry said this week that inflation for June is expected to be 2.7 per cent, the first time it will be above the central bank’s 2.5 per cent target in two years.

“I want to be able to live normally in Poland for my very hard work,” says Jolanta Zakielarz, a nurse from the eastern city of Przemysl. Her monthly salary, after 15 years of experience, is 1,000 zlotys ($360, €265, £180), and she wants it raised to 3,000 zlotys. “I can’t live on what I earn.”

The mood in the nurses’ camp dispute turned ugly after four of them managed to occupy the office of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Polish prime minister. Mr Kaczynski denounced them as politically motivated criminals who were trying to undermine his government.

The four nurses have since been persuaded to leave, but Mr Kaczynski is continuing to use harsh rhetoric against the strikers.

In his latest blast, the prime minister denounced “satans” who were behind the strike, while other ministers have warned that doctors could be forced to go back to work.

Verbal attacks like that have worked in previous battles between the populist government and judges, journalists, professors, foreign governments and intellectuals, but they are proving less effective against women dressed in nursing whites.

Poland has one of the lowest levels of healthcare spending in the European Union, with public spending on health at about 4 per cent of gross domestic product, about half the EU average. The government has promised to raise spending to 6 per cent of GDP, but now finds it does not have the money.

Mr Kaczynski’s solution was to propose a referendum over whether to raise raise taxes on the wealthiest to pay for better health care.

Economists roundly condemned the idea of a referendum. The nurses are not in favour either.

“It’s a ridiculous idea. It is just supposed to create a conflict between us and the rest of society,” says Urszula Jablonska, a nurse who says she voted for the ruling Law and Justice party in 2005 but now regrets her choice.

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