Nurses win in court after judge lifts injunction on industrial action

MUMN is suspending the directives as a gesture of goodwill pending talks with the ministry • Judge rules directives do not endanger patients' lives

The nurses' union can go ahead with industrial action after a judge determined on Monday that directives ordered by the union do not endanger patients' lives.

In a judgement handed down by Mr Justice Ian Spiteri Bailey, the court upheld the arguments put forward by the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses (MUMN), namely that the directives it ordered did not endanger the lives of patients under their care. 

Indeed, the judge ruled that the Health Ministry had no right for the injunction, while the industrial actions announced by the MUMN were completely legal.

He went on to stress that it was the responsibility of the Health Ministry to ensure that the issue that led to the industrial action be resolved as soon as possible. 

As a gesture of goodwill and to reflect the judge's comments, the union is suspending the directives pending further negotiations on work conditions with the ministry.

Last June, the judge provisionally blocked the union from continuing its industrial action after health authorities requested a prohibitory injunction on a raft of directives that had been issued by the union.

Nurses were ordered to take a two-hour break each day at operating theatres, to not leave a ward to accompany patients unless there is a staff-to-patient ratio of one to five, and to not admit patients into particular hospital wards or government's home for the elderly.

Staff shortage issues were the source of the dispute, with the union arguing that there should be one nurse for every four patients in each of the 65 wards at Mater Dei Hospital. In some cases, the shortage led to this ratio falling to one-to-six, one-to-eight, or one-to-twelve in the worst cases. 

On top of this, health authorities refused to entertain a request by the union for nurses to be given an uncapped two-thirds pension, something that would usually only be afforded to members of parliament and of the judiciary. A request for nurses' and midwives' overtime to be taxed at 10% was also shot down by the authorities. 

Mr Justice Spiteri Baily noted in his judgement that it is the Health Ministry's responsibility to address the staffing shortage of nurses, although the court acknowledged that the State was already working on this issue. 

He further ruled that the union had every right to demand a discussion on pensions and overtime tax, as these not only form part of workers' conditions but have also been offered to other sectors. 

In line with what the court ruled, the MUMN Council will be temporarily suspending these directives as a gesture of goodwill and will write to the Ministry for Health and Ministry for Active Ageing to kick off discussions on the staffing shortage. 

To celebrate the judgment, the council also instructed all nurses and midwives to wear colourful tops to work instead of black t-shirts. Nurses have been wearing black t-shirts in protest.