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It's better in the Bahamas

December 9, 2005 -- Recent press articles in the Bahamas have reported on a massive and apparently successful sickout by the Bahamas Nurses Union (BNU) with respect to the nation's public hospitals. A fairly good piece by Erica Wells in yesterday's Bahama Journal describes the basic outlines of the dispute, which appeared to center on the nurses' demands for higher wage increases and for medical insurance. A shorter and somewhat unbalanced story by Lededra Marche in today's Freeport News reports that the nurses ended the brief sickout after signing a contract that addressed their concerns, including unspecified measures to deal with workplace threats and violence. These articles are notable for several things they suggest, more or less in passing, about factors in nursing practice in the Bahamas, including the status of women, the role of nurses from overseas, and the role of Christian churches in such disputes.

The Bahama Journal piece, "Nurses on 'Strike,'" describes the basic elements of the industrial action, which "forc[ed] the public health system to work on a fraction of its staff." The Public Hospitals Authority reportedly asserted that the strike might be illegal, as the nurses were "essential services" workers. BNU president Cleola Hamilton turned this claim around in support of her medical insurance demands, which the union had apparently been pushing for many years without success: "The government is saying that nursing is an essential service, and essential servants are insured under the Bahamas government - police and defence force officers - but they refuse to insure nurses." Hamilton, who said she herself was concerned about the effects of the strike on public health, went on to suggest possible reasons for this disparate treatment: "We are sick and tired of the way nurses are treated in this country. We are treated as sub-employees, whether this is being done because nursing is predominately female I don’t know, but we are treated as sub-employees in the government." The piece has no response from management as to how the nurses could be considered "essential" for their duties but not their rights, but we imagine that few women are unfamiliar with this general phenomenon. Later, the piece notes that one hospital was being staffed by management nurses, nurses who refused to take part in the strike, and "Filipino nurses." The piece did not explain why the Filipino nurses were apparently excluded from the strike as a class, nor how many Filipino nurses were involved, but this mention of the workers does at least suggest the breadth of nursing migration in the midst of the current global upheaval.

The Freeport News article, "New contract; Nationwide sick-out by nurses results in signing of new industrial agreement," described the government's apparent acceptance of the nurses' demands. It reported that the nurses were expected to return to work that morning. Presumably the new contract includes medical insurance, though that is not specifically confirmed here. It is also unclear what specific measures will be taken to address the workplace threats and violence, which would have been helpful to know. The piece does note that Bishop William Thompson, president of the Bahamas Christian Council, had made an "impassioned plea" for the nurses to return to work. He reportedly said that the Christian community understands the plight of the nurses, but that "[w]e are the watchdogs of the people and when the church feels that anything would bring hurt to the country, then the church is called to step in." The piece does not say if Bishop Thompson discussed whether policies that resulted in nursing strikes and the need for foreign nurses might also cause "hurt" to the nation, nor if he urged the government to treat the nurses fairly as part of his role as "watchdog[] of the people." This piece quotes only Bishop Thompson and management side officials, and it could have benefited from equal comment from Ms. Hamilton or the other BNU nurses, especially since we assume they would have been eager to discuss their apparent victory.

We thank the Bahama Journal and the Freeport News for covering these important issues.

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