27 May 2024

Foodbanks, scurvy warning - fed-up students seek end to unpaid work while training

6:06 pm on 27 May 2024
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Nurses are among those expected to do placements at their own expense and without being paid. Photo: 123RF

Education, healthcare and social work students are still expected to do unpaid workplace placements of sometimes more than 40 hours a week on top of study and job commitments.

One medical student says he has even been prescribed scurvy medication because he cannot afford fruit and vegetables, and is unable to find a job to fit around his long hours of clinical placements.

On Tuesday, a petition with thousands of signatures arrives at Parliament calling for change.

A Wellington-based final-year medical student who RNZ has agreed not to name told Checkpoint he was doing fulltime unpaid clinical placements on top of his onerous study requirements.

The placements can involve weekend and night shifts, and apart from actually prescribing drugs, he is generally doing the work of a junior doctor.

He said he was lucky enough to have a supportive family when he needed help, as finding a job to earn enough money to get by was tricky.

"There're not many jobs able to give me the flexibility to also complete my medical training alongside it," the medical student said.

"As a result the only option I've had is to cut down on my expenses.

"I'll put it bluntly. I have been cutting down pretty ruthlessly and it involves things like skipping meals or buying, quite literally, the bare essentials."

Fruit and veges were generally too expensive, and the student said his own doctor had prescribed him vitamin pills to ward off scurvy.

"You just go to work hungry, chow down on that coffee in the staffroom and hope that gives you enough energy to make it through."

Advocacy group Paid Placements Aotearoa will present a petition signed by 15,000 people to Parliament on Tuesday, calling for an end to unpaid training.

Thousands of hours of unpaid work

Its campaign lead, Bex Howells, said healthcare, education and social work students should at least get the minimum wage.

"We have chronic staff shortages in all of those sectors and in order to train in these professions students have to do thousand of hours of unpaid placements in order to qualify.

"We pay police to train, prison officers, customs officers, military, yet for some reason if you train as a nurse, a teacher, a social worker or a midwife you're not paid to train."

Overseas experiences had shown paid placements stopped students from dropping out of their courses, as happened here when they could not afford to continue, Howells said.

"It's not uncommon for students to rely on foodbanks. They often can't afford heating or medication.

"They are having to make decisions between feeding their children or putting fuel in the tank to get to their unpaid placements."

Howells said she dropped out of her social worker qualification a few years ago when she could not afford to get by on anything less than the minimum wage, which she said was in place to avoid exploitation.

Education Minister Erica Stanford over the weekend announced 1200 teaching students in the next four years would get a $20,000 stipend while they learned on the job - but at this stage it would only be available for people with an undergraduate degree.

Howells said it was a start, but there was still inconsistency between, for example, police and what was announced at the weekend.

"It's great the government is recognising that this is an issue, but that's not going to solve the teacher [shortage].

"Is $20,000 really going to incentivise the next generation to do three or four years' unpaid training, with maybe $60,000 student debt."

Nurses and teachers previously were paid for on-the-job training, but that was decades ago.

'I was pretty burnt out'

A first-year nurse said the pressure really came on in the final year of study when important exams loomed.

Like the medical student, for her final placement the nurse said she was also essentially doing the work of a junior nurse - in her case driving around the community seeing patients.

She was reliant on her partner to pay the bills.

"I was pretty burnt out by my third year and I hadn't even started my nursing career, which sucked," the nurse said.

"When we're working 40 hours a week the nursing school encourages us not to work because we're already working those 40 hours, but how are you supposed to pay your rent?"

Students were also generally responsible for travel and accommodation costs if required.

A final-year student paramedic said daily expenses such as parking or public transport also quickly mounted.

And, like the other students Checkpoint has spoken to, the student paramedic found it hard to fit in paid work with training placements and study.

Her placements with an ambulance service involved working two 11-hour days, then two 13-hour nights, before four days off.

Her responsibilities included patient care, and the role was mentally taxing.

"If the government want to make up these massive gaps in these sectors something needs to change as I don't think it's sustainable.

"By the end of this three-year degree I'm going to be extremely burnt out when I'm expected to immediately become part of the workforce."

Stanford was unavailable to comment on Monday.

A spokesperson for health minister Shane Reti said: "The government's investment in health will be part of Budget 2024, announced on Thursday".

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