21 Aug 2023

Senior doctors, dentists who work in hospitals vote to strike

6:42 pm on 21 August 2023
Junior doctors strike in Wellington.

File image. Photo: RNZ / Karen Brown

Senior doctors and dentists working in hospitals have voted to strike next month over their deadlocked pay negotiations.

In a notice to members, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists said 82 percent have voted in support of the three strikes, with the first on 5 September between 12pm and 2pm.

That will be followed by another two-hour strike on 13 September and the third will be a four-hour strike on 21 September.

The union's executive director, Sarah Dalton, said senior clinicians have either had no pay rise at all, or pay rises that lag behind inflation since 2020.

"Our members have said there needs to be, at the minimum, a CPI [Consumers Price Index] adjustment. They can't continue with real pay cuts, considering how short-staffed they are, how difficult the work is, and how difficult it is to recruit senior doctors and dentists."

On top of two years of the government's "public sector pay guidance", the offer really amounted to a "real-terms pay cut of 11 percent", Dalton said.

The union was claiming an increase of 7-8 percent across 12 months, and some changes to salary steps to fix an overlap between advanced trainees and earlier career senior medical doctors, as well as providing progression for those already on the top band.

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists chief executive Sarah Dalton.

Sarah Dalton Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Dalton said they could not continue to put up with pay cuts, particularly in view of the current staff shortages and recruitment problems.

"Te Whatu Ora will not even pay senior doctors and dentists the bare minimum to ensure their staff do not take a real-terms pay cut for the third year in a row," Dalton said.

"Every employee in New Zealand deserves to have the value of their income maintained, especially when they are performing critical frontline tasks and being asked to cover as many staffing shortages as our doctors currently are."

Dalton said the strikes had been timed in a way that would disrupt patients as little as possible.

"Te Whatu Ora and its funders are the target of these strikes, not patients," Dalton said.

"Doctors care about their patients but have decided failure to protect the value of their work will only result in more doctors leaving New Zealand or declining to apply for jobs here."

New Zealand relied heavily on overseas-trained doctors and dentists to fill vacancies with nearly 50 percent of the country's senior medical workforce trained overseas, she said.

"However, overseas doctors have largely stopped applying for jobs due to pay and working condition issues.

"Obviously pay and conditions are far superior in Australia.

"We can't compete with them, but at the very least we need to ensure that our people we do have are not taking real wage cuts year on year."

Te Whatu Ora has already acknowledged the country was 1700 senior doctors short across the country.

"We think that's an extremely conservative estimate. Already, hospitals are critically short staffed, with senior doctors increasingly trying to run services with insufficient senior and junior doctors, nurses, and allied health staff."

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists president Julian Vyas said the goodwill of doctors had been taken for granted for too long.

"At the same time, the system has ignored our concerns about short staffing restricting patient access to care and causing us overwork and burnout.

"For years and years, those in charge have failed to address the critical shortage of senior dentists and doctors, and simply expected us to keep putting up with it all this. And now, on top of everything else, we are being asked to swallow another real-terms pay cut."

This would happen no longer, Vyas said.

"Many of our colleagues have indicated they have had enough and are looking to leave the public health system either for overseas postings or to the private sector.

"This will leave the public sector further short staffed, meaning patients have even less access to care, and senior staff even more fatigued and burned out."

The union had been prepared to start negotiating in February, ahead of the collective agreement expiring in March, but it was not until April that Te Whatu Ora was able to appoint a negotiator on its behalf.

Hipkins urges negotiations

Speaking to reporters after the weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins urged the senior doctors to get back to the negotiating table.

"Our track record speaks for itself, we've invested significantly in our doctors, in our nurses, they've seen significant pay increases during the time that we've been in government, I'd encourage the senior doctors to get back around the bargaining table to find a way forward.

"We do value the work that our senior doctors do."

It was a slightly different tone to when Hipkins had been celebrating the gender pay equity deals brought in for a range of professions including nurses.

"Valuing people fairly is what governments can do if it views that as a priority," he said.

Asked if he expected the dispute with senior doctors to be resolved before the October election, he only said: "I live in hope".

"I don't want to see any of our medical workforce on strike and I think the best way to resolve those issues is around the bargaining table. I know that Te Whatu Ora will have contingency plans in place should any strike action go ahead."

Te Whatu Ora responds to strike notice

In a statement, Te Whatu Ora confirmed it had received notice of the upcoming strike action.

It said it valued the "enormous contribution" of doctors and thanked them for the critical role they play in the health needs of New Zealanders.

"We know our workforce is under pressure and addressing this across the health sector is a top priority, with significant work underway in this space.

"Last year, Senior Medical Officers (SMOs) accepted a settlement which included $6000 on all pay scales and a further $6000 lump sum payment.

"The current offer would, by 1 April 2024, see all our senior doctors receive a further pay increase of between $15,000 to $26,000, in addition to a further lump sum payment of around $4000. "

Te Whatu Ora said the offer also included the agreement to work with the union on ways to create "visible and equitable pay and conditions for SMOs".

While it respected the right the strike, it was disappointed given it believed its offer was fair.

"We will continue to work with ASMS towards agreeing a settlement and to see if the strike can be averted.

"In the meantime, contingency planning is underway to ensure safe and appropriate care for patients in the event action does go ahead."

Current senior medical officer salaries (from Te Whatu Ora):

  • The average base FTE salary for a senior medical officer is $238,500 (excluding additional salary payments for shift work, being on-call and superannuation)
  • The average Total FTE salary package for a senior medical officer is $318,000 (including additional salary payments and superannuation)

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs