A long-running pay dispute between the Icelandic government and the country’s midwives may finally have been resolved. The dispute has resulted in strike action and c.10% of all of Iceland’s midwives resigning.
The new deal, brokered on Saturday 21 July, will see a salary deal reached in Spring implemented in the short term and an independent arbitration panel set up to determine midwives’ claims that they merit a significant salary increase (17-18%) in order to be treated equally to that of nurses. The Icelandic Association of Midwives have argued that neither their educational qualifications nor the significance of their responsibilities have previously been adequately taken into account when determining their pay. Additionally, midwives assert that the strike has been more than just about pay, but also understaffing and other concerns. The deal was overwhelmingly accepted by midwives on Wednesday.
Prime Minister of Iceland and Leader of the Left-Green Movement party, Katrín Jakobsdóttir (pictured above), expressed ‘Mikill léttir’ (‘great relief’) at the breakthrough in dispute talks.
All 6 regional hospitals in Iceland as well as the National and University Hospital based in the capital, Reykjavik, have maternity wards, according to British Embassy advice in 2015. However, the dispute has increasingly centered around the National Hospital.
There are 250-275 midwives in the whole of Iceland, of which 150 or so work at the National and University Hospital, in Reykjavik (pictured below). In 2017, there were just under 3,000 births at the National and University Hospital, averaging 8 a day.
The pay dispute has lasted 10 months. To become a midwife in Iceland typically requires 6-7 years of education, but according to IcelandReview.com, many midwives currently suffer a wage cut when entering the specialised profession from previously being nurses. While the Ministry of Finance repeatedly asserted that there were insufficient funds to provide a salary increase for midwives, according to The Reykjavik Grapevine, Icelandic parliamentary salaries’ have risen by 45%. The leader of the liberal-conservative Independence Party, Minister of Finance and former Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson stoked the midwives’ discontent in April by calling changes to their demands as ‘completely unreasonable’ and criticising the issue’s framing as disrespectful to the work of midwives if their demands weren’t met. Not long after, two-thirds of all of Iceland’s midwives went on strike, including all in-home midwives. An agreement was brokered in late May, but decisively rejected when put to a vote of all midwives.
More than 20 midwives at the University and National Hospital have resigned during the dispute, 19 resignations taking effect on 1 July. When the latest strike action took place last week, where midwives in hospitals boycotted overtime hours, it led the National and University hospital Director Páll Matthíasson to describe the situation as a crisis. Staff numbers went below safe working figures, confinement departments were closed and some patients were placed in the Department of Dentistry. Suggestions were made in some quarters for Parliament to pass legislation to force midwives to work overtime, although the Minister for Health, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, rejected this option.
With the National and University Hospital on the brink of scrapping the first ultrasound screenings of pregnancies at 11-14 weeks, it seems the hospital blinked first, agreeing to review a number of work-related arrangements for the more than half of all of Iceland’s midwives who work there.
The midwives appear to have gained strong levels of public support along the way. Public support meetings were held, over 16,200 people signed a petition on Change.org urging the government to agree to midwife demands and more than 15,000 individuals are members of a Facebook group in support of the midwives.
Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, though. The Icelandic word for midwife is ‘ljósmóður’ [ljous-mow-thr], a ‘mother of light’. Its first documented use dating back to 1584, ‘ljósmóður’ was chosen by a 2013 poll of the Icelandic public run by the University of Iceland and Iceland’s national TV broadcaster, RÚV, as the most beautiful word in the Icelandic language.