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Nurses end industrial action at GHA, but tension flares at DSS

St Bernard's Hospital. Photo by Eyleen Gomez.

Nurses at the Gibraltar Health Authority voted overwhelmingly this week to end selective industrial action over employment concerns, marking a turning point after months of strained industrial relations.

But the positive development at the GHA came as the GGCA union announced that staff at the Department of Social Services would launch industrial action over poor working conditions that had driven staff to “breaking point”.

From May 9 DSS staff will not answer phones or emails, a move that will impact the provision of services including the payment of benefits.

The DSS had been housed in a dilapidated building since 2019 but were evacuated in January after water penetration rendered the electrical system unsafe and caused a ceiling to collapse.

Since the evacuation the department has been “homeless”, with staff working from home and from small temporary offices provided by other departments.

The GGCA had declared a dispute in February but held off industrial action following assurances that new premises would be provided by April.

But these have yet to materialise, leaving staff “hotdesking” with 10 workstations, three printers and insufficient phone lines.

Most of them continue to work from home, adding difficulty to their work given the DSS still relies on a paper-based system.

“Clearly, these working conditions are unsustainable and the workforce has come to breaking point,” the GGCA said.

“Therefore, the only remaining option for the GGCA at present is the commencement of industrial action.”

“As from Monday May 9, 2022, staff will no longer be answering any phone calls or replying to/ sending any emails.”

“This will impact the services provided to the public, including the paying out of benefits.”

“The staff will instead be dealing with the back office work which has been building up since the evacuation of Governor’s Parade in January 2022.”

“The membership has tried to maintain continuity of services at all costs, but unfortunately the resolution of this matter has not been prioritized by the Government of Gibraltar.”

“It is the GGCA view that industrial action now needs to be taken as a last resort.”

The downturn at the DSS comes after nurses voted to end selective industrial action at the GHA.

The nurses had been going to work out of uniform over longstanding concerns including the use of short-term contracts. No services were impacted as a result of the action.

Their protest drew wide support in the community, which backed a demonstration organised by Unite the Union last March.

Since then, Unite and the GHA have been locked in negotiations and on Thursday, the union announced it was lifting the action after 73.7% of its nursing members voted to return to wearing their uniforms.

It followed agreement between the GHA and Unite on issues including contracts, resources, extra days and relief cover.

The developments come against the backdrop of major structural changes to the GHA framework in a move by the Gibraltar Government to separate politics and healthcare.

The Government unveiled a major shake-up to ‘reset, restart and recover’ the GHA last year, hiring an interim Director General in January to lead the restructure.

“I wholeheartedly welcome the vote by members of Unite the Union to return to uniform,” said the Director General of the GHA, Patrick Geoghegan.

“This represents a significant step forward in the commitment of both sides to work together to understand and address each other’s issues, with the wellbeing of staff and patients at the forefront of our priorities.”

“I look forward to continuing to develop the working relationship between the GHA and Unite, building on the rapport established during the course of our regular meetings throughout the first half of the year.”

Unite’s regional officer, Sam Hennessey, also welcomed the development but left no doubt that the union would monitor how the agreements were implemented.

“The agreements provide a solid foundation for the employer to once and for all end the chaotic and reactive approach to contracts as well as tackling many departmental issues that have been to the detriment of nursing staff,” Mr Hennessey said.

“The vote to return to uniform of 73.7% shows a willingness from nursing staff to enable these agreements to be enforced effectively for the benefit of union members and the patients they care for on frontline healthcare services in Gibraltar.”

“Our members have made it clear to us that if the GHA fails to keep their end and not uphold these agreements there will be no hesitation from Unite in taking matters further.”

Mr Hennessey expressed the union’s hope that these agreements will improve the day-to-day working lives of nursing staff across the GHA, and Unite’s intention to closely monitor developments over the coming weeks and months.

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