A half-baked settlementThe Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union under the umbrella Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) last week withdrew its plan for a general strike through a last-minute agreement with the government. Increases in staffing and financial compensations are necessary to prevent a burnout of nurses who had become exhausted by near two-year-long battle with Covid-19.
But the government cannot avoid public criticism that it yielded to demands by a union under the militant KCTU in the face of a collective action threat by taking patients hostage. The condition of increasing the numbers of doctors and public hospitals, which had triggered a strike by doctors last year, can stoke another conflict with doctors. The government’s agreement could provoke the doctors’ group.
The government and the union held 13 rounds of negotiations since May 31 and finally agreed to draw up a guideline on staffing at Covid-19 treating hospitals, institutionalization of compensating nurses for their safety risk, setting a legal guideline on the care of patients per nurse, and increasing the number of nurses training nurses and night-shift nurses.
Betterment in the work conditions for nurses was the key point. The Health Ministry will set guidelines on assigning nurses according to the gravity of Covid-19 illness this month and setting detailed action plans by next month. Medical staff working under the hazard of infection will be subsidized with state budget on life and safety compensations. The ministry will propose legal amendments and allocate the necessary budget in the second half.
The Health Ministry and the union agreed to form a council to set up and staff public hospitals and transfer the authority over commanding national university hospitals to the Health Ministry from the Education Ministry.
Associations of doctors jumped at the agreement that had been agreed to without their knowing. They threatened with protests against the government’s agreement which violates its earlier agreement with doctors in September last year to end a doctors’ strike. At the time, doctors agreed to halt their strike and renew talks on increasing the number of doctors, public hospitals and hospital staffers after the Covid-19 crisis is over.
The health workers’ union walked away with bigger-than-expected gains through the easy surrender of the government. But another risk of a doctors’ collective action has surfaced. The government must strive to prevent another strike by medical professionals amid an ongoing Covid-19 crisis.