Portuguese healthcare workers suspend historic strike


Portuguese healthcare technicians have suspended an open-ended strike planned for this week, after the government agreed to union demands to reopen negotiations on salary and career structures.

“Three days before our historic strike, the government has recognised our arguments and our strength,” Sindicato Nacional dos Técnicos Superiores de Saúde das áreas de Diagnóstico e Terapêutica (STSS, or the Union of Sciences and Health Technologies) said in a statement late Sunday.

“We have achieved our first objectives, the resumption of negotiations,” it added, describing the decision as “a victory for colleagues who fearlessly put their trust in the union’s struggle.”

The strike, which had been due to start on Tuesday 31 March, was the latest industrial action by Portuguese workers in response to five years of austerity policies which have continued despite the country’s exit from an international bailout programme last May.

“The situation is very serious. We used to see progress and growth in Portugal, now things are just going backwards in terms of rights and conditions,” Tiago Guardado Pereira, a member of the executive board of the STSS union told Equal Times last week.

“We have to defend the national health service, but also education and justice. We have to maintain our principles," he added.

The STSS – which represents over 10,000 health sector professionals – has already held a series of short-term stoppages to protest at declining conditions and real wages, including a two-day strike in February.

On 13 March 2015, health workers joined a wider public-sector strike which affected schools, hospitals, court rooms, council offices and rubbish collection.

It marked the first time since November 2013 that Portugal’s two main trade union confederations – the CGTP and the UGT – had called joint public-sector action.

Unions say austerity policies have undermined vital public services, forced employees to work longer hours for less pay, increased unemployment and crippled economic growth.

Labour unrest is set to continue ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Recent polls show the opposition Socialist Party with a narrow lead over the two centre-right parties in the current government coalition led by Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

The government insists its policies are paying off.

It points out that the economy is now growing after years of recession, while unemployment has fallen to 13.3 per cent over the past two years from a high of over 16 per cent.

Critics counter that the slow rate of recovery has done nothing to reverse years of decline, debt is still growing and long-term harm to the economy and social structure is accentuated by a ‘brain-drain’ that has forced tens of thousands of young Portuguese workers to emigrate.


Deep discontent

Nationwide strikes in Portugal are usually limited to one or two days, so the decision of the health technicians to call an unlimited stoppage reflects deep discontent at worsening pay and conditions.

The union complains that career structures and salary rates have been effectively frozen since 1999, while the current government has failed to honour a pledge included in last year’s budget to update the technicians’ career plan.

Negotiations with the Health Ministry broke down last July.

“They just don’t speak to us,” says Guardado Pereira, an orthoptist of 15 years.

“When we held our penultimate strike, we had a delegation outside the Ministry but they wouldn’t even receive us. This is something we haven’t seen in Portugal for years. They won’t open discussions with us. It’s a very complicated situation.”

The STSS’s list of complaints is long.

In a statement, the union says that over half of all diagnostic and therapeutic technicians are currently working on short-term contracts or self-employed terms, with low pay and benefits, due to restrictions imposed on entry into professional careers.

Many have been forced to increase their working hours from 35 to 40 hours a week without extra pay and promotions have been blocked.

“People are facing real hardship,” says Pereira. “Long-term damage is being wrought on the health service,” he continued.

“Some courses are closing because young people don’t want to enter professions where they are so badly paid and treated. Others are leaving to go abroad where they can get paid so much more.”