March of the Midwives

Midwives around New Zealand marched today, protesting pay rates and working conditions across the industry. Don Rowe joined the march up Auckland’s main street.

New Zealand midwives and their supporters marched in cities around the country today, calling for urgent adjustments to what they say is an outrageously low pay scale, which can in some cases amount to as little as $7 an hour after expenses. Unable to negotiate the terms of their contracts for more than a decade, community midwives complain of being saddled with low pay packets and harsh working conditions in an industry with severe consequences, both personally and professionally, for mishap or malpractice.

Despite being the lead carers in 90% of births, community (LMC) midwives don’t get sick leave. Their pay does not increase with experience, nor with consideration to location, nor when working with mothers with unique or challenging needs. Midwives are on call 24/7 for weeks either side of birth and are not reimbursed for travel except in some rare cases. Now, after studying a four year degree with more than 4,000 clinical and theory hours, they are leaving the profession in droves, leading to severe shortages and historically low morale.

Photo: Don Rowe

And yet the Auckland march of the midwives was at times as much a celebration and affirmation as a protest.

Walking behind a truck carrying Polynesian drummers they headed south from Takutai Square in the CBD, spilling down Customs Street and onwards to the main street. Above the rolling percussion they chanted and danced. “David Clark hear what we say, New Zealand midwives need more pay!”

Baby clothes and onesies hung from suspended wire like so many Tibetan prayer flags. Two men juggled in diapers, fully half the male attendees not counting the homeless in Freyberg Square (their signs were different, but in a similar vein). There was an air of the Carnival about.  

Photo: Don Rowe

Nga Marsters, chair of Pasifika Midwives Tamaki Makaurau and co-chair of Pasifika Midwives Aotearoa, said the turnout was “fabulous”.

“This is an opportunity to come together, and to show our value. There are issues here, we’re not getting paid what we’re worth, and we’re hoping the budget is going to reflect that.”

“We are also here because we want to work with our Pacific whānau. There are health inequalities with Pacifica and they often need extra care, but we’re getting paid the same across the board. It’s about a recognition of that inequality.”

Jaclyn Bonnici, of the Dear David grassroots movement, said there were severe disparities across urban and rural midwives, too.

“Of the 850 midwives in Auckland, 230 or so are self employed, on-call 24/7, with the remainder working shift work,” she said. “Urban midwives earn an average of $12 per hour after expenses, and rural midwives would be lucky to get more than $7.”

Photo: Don Rowe

It’s not exactly an attractive prospect after four years of tertiary education. Ellen Worlledge, a year three midwifery student representative at AUT, said students knew there were issues by their first placements in their first year of study, but many were determined to continue.

“But it’s really come to a head in the last year or so. We still want to keep going, it’s just that only the strongest will survive. A lot of midwives will leave the profession. We’re optimistic, but realistically we’ll have to see what happens with the Budget.”

With the Labour-led government putting the final touches on its first Budget this month, midwives in Wellington delivered a 12,000-strong petition to parliament. Clark has signalled the situation cannot be rectified in one budget, but for the crowd assembled in Freyberg Square action is overdue and essential.

‘Jacinda Ardern: we’ll deliver if you do’, read one sign.

Another sign asked this: if midwives were blokes, would we be having this discussion at all?

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