The NZNO DHB MECA — what is at the heart of members’ anger and what can be done?

There has been a lot of frustration amongst NZNO members about the way the DHB MECA negotiations have unfolded. Health Sector Workers Network (HSWN) has been vocal about this process and the flaws in strategy. With the vote currently underway for the second offer, frustration has given way to anger in different forums. What are some of the possible causes?

Going once… a new and improved offer?

One of the reasons for this discontent may be around how the new offer is having to be ‘sold’ to members. The ‘new’ offer is essentially the same as the previous offer in November. It is shorter (24 months vs 33 months) and there is a lump-sum increase of $700 pro-rata. While there is also some change to the pay equity claim — we do not consider this part of the offer. Therefore, nothing significant has changed from the deal that members rejected previously.

Sources from within NZNO report that NZNO ‘officialdom’ are working hard to ‘sell’ the deal to members. From a workers/members perspective, this is provoking. It should not be role of NZNO paid staff to ‘sell’ an offer to members. The loss of neutrality gives the impression that NZNO officials are more concerned about managing expectations and accommodating employers, than responding to the needs of members. This would be enough to make people angry.

Let the money do the talking

If anything is important in our capitalist society and a reason to get angry, it is pay increases… or a lack of pay increases. We need to put this into perspective. A step 5 RN on the NZNO DHB MECA in 2006 was on $54,000 per year. A step 5 RN on the current existing DHB MECA is earning $66,755. This a 23.6% change over this time. The equivalent inflation adjusted salary in the 4th Quarter of 2017 would be $66,270[1]. Therefore, members are $485 better off in 2017 compared to 2006 with inflation adjusted. The wages in the DHB MECA have therefore kept up with inflation and have improved slightly in real terms. So why are people demanding more?

Arial view of Porirua East and Cannons Creek looking West towards Porirua City — photographer: R. Anderson. September 1969, Wellington Province

Housing costs are part of every person’s life. Median house prices across New Zealand were $330,000 in 2006[2]. In 2017 this has increased to $540,000 — a 64% change. If we take into account inflation, the adjusted difference is still 34%. In terms of rental costs, the average NZ weekly rent in 2006 was $242[3]. This increased to $362 by 2017. This is a 50% increase over this period. Again, if we adjust for inflation, there has still been a 23% increase. This situation is obviously worse in areas such as Auckland and Wellington which have seen sharper increases to median house prices and average rent. For example, Auckland median house prices have increased by 107% (69% inflation adjusted), whereas the average rental price in Auckland is $539, a 55% change from $348.

Another way to look at this is in terms of proportion of housing costs to weekly wage. In 2006, members spent around 23% of their weekly wage[4] on the average rental costs around New Zealand. In 2017 this has risen to 28%. Currently, in Auckland members spend 42% of their wage on the average weekly rent. This is a loose estimate based on MBIE historical figures, and also approximates rental costs (which vary on dwelling type, etc.). Irrespective, the main point is this: housing costs have risen while wages have only met inflation. If members wanted to restore the same proportion of wages to rent they had in 2006, this MECA would have to increase wages by around 24%.

While the NZNO DHB MECA has kept up with inflation, we can see that housing costs around New Zealand have increased significantly. This may be more an issue of New Zealand’s love affair with housing speculation, but this is still at the heart of frustrations when reviewing wages. Our wages are not keeping up with the costs we live with. Housing is central to every person’s living. Nowhere in the NZNO campaign have there been mention of housing costs. While the process of collective bargaining cannot build houses and cannot change the fundamental problem, it can attempt to utilise this as a benchmark and bring these differences closer. A lack of increase to offset these costs leaves many frustrated and angry.

If pay is political, then…?

A pay increase for healthcare workers is ultimately up to the government. Considering this fact, we wanted to also include a comparison between backbench MP pay increases with nurses from 2006 to 2017. A backbench MP is a member of parliament who does not hold any portfolios or ministerial positions. Many people will be aware of the regular out roar over MP salary increases every year, and this is commonly reported in the media. So let’s channel this anger.

In 2006 a backbench MP received a salary of $122,500[5]. In 2017 a backbencher earned $163,961. This is a 33.8% increase. In this same time nurses have increased by 23.6%. This is a 10.2% difference. We must also consider that this year backbench MPs will probably get at least another 2% increase… minimum.

When the government fails to fix the widening gap between politicians and healthcare workers, people get frustrated. 2% does not fix this gap. This is reason to be angry.

Safely staffing more of the same

The new offer does not change any of the ‘safe staffing’ provisions from the first offer. NZNO communications have proclaimed that the offer contains provisions for expansion of the existing safe staffing programme across New Zealand and robust clauses which will make escalation and DHB accountability stronger.

This move for extension to the Care Capacity Demand Management (CCDM) programme was captured well by a facebook comment stating: “why are we continuing to flog this dead horse?”. The sentiment here is that after 10 years of development and work, health workers are still struggling to see the benefits of this system. While the changes in this new offer may be the catalyst to cultural change, at this stage it feels like pushing for change with the same tools. HSWN are worried that in 10 years time things will be much the same — an expanded CCDM that is still struggling to solidify real benefits. Health workers have a right to be sceptical.

HSWN supports a move to incorporate minimum staffing ratios. It is time to raise this as a measure. Fundamentally, staffing ratios — while a ‘blunt measure’ — are easy to understand, easy to communicate — and because of this — can be the center of effective campaigns for safe staffing. In comparison, try explaining CCDM to someone. There are many Australian examples of ‘wins’ and significant improvements to the environment of patient care following the introduction of minimum staffing ratios.

This is an example of one strategy that could make a significant difference to safe staffing. The current negotiations could include a requirement or pathway for developing minimum staffing ratios. This pathway could lead to mandated minimum ratios in the DHB MECA and eventually developed into legislation. The mountains of data that exists from the CCDM programme could be used constructively to define minimum ratios. The information is there, the willingness is not.

Strike for a better deal

HSWN believe that workers can win a better deal. Voting for strike action is about making a statement of action. There are 27,000 members in DHBs across New Zealand. This is the largest health sector workforce in New Zealand. A vote to strike demands a response. A strike for a better deal is an opportunity to express the reality of DHB health workers’ experience. A strike vote will unleash the movement that is building with groups such as “Nurse Florence” and “Dear David Aotearoa Needs Midwives”. A strike for a better deal will have the support of these movements. The anger must be heard. The time is now to channel this anger.


[1]All inflation calculations have been completed with the Reserve Banks Inflation Calculator — found here

[2] See

[3] This data uses information from Ministry of Business and Innovation. Ideally this data should be median rent costs, but the data provided mean figures. See here for all data

[4] This data uses the Step 5 RN figure of $54,000 and MBIE rental cost figures

[5] NZ Herald 1st December 2006 — here

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