Faced with the threat of patients being left without urgent medical care in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic due to a pay dispute, the government moved to head off planned strike action from health-workers this week.
On Wednesday, the Labour Ministry ordered 15 days of mandatory conciliation talks between health unions, led by Carlos West Ocampo and Héctor Daer, and companies from the sector to resolve the dispute.
The portfolio, headed by Claudio Moroni, told union leaders to "nullify any direct action measure that they were implementing and/or have planned to implement” and summoned representatives from both sides to the Ministry’s headquarters for a hearing next Wednesday.
Health-workers unions had earlier announced four-hour stoppages for Thursday and Friday, saying they would only treat urgent priorities during those hours amid an ongoing pay dispute. The news followed assemblies in hospitals, clinics and health institutions across the country. Workers at private institutions were also set to join the walkout.
Grouped under the banner of the Federación de Asociaciones de los Trabajadores de la Sanidad (FATSA), representing some 250,000 employees, workers at hospitals and clinics are seeking a salary increase of between 43 and 45 percent, in line with recent increases secured by unions representing truckers and bankers. Annual inflation totals 48.8 percent over the last 12 months, according to government data.
The strike threat comes at a challenging moment for Argentina’s health system, which is split into three sectors of public hospitals, union-run obras sociales healthcare schemes and private prepaid medicine. Firms say they can't meet the pay demands if they are not allowed to increase their fees for services, a move the government will not allow. They argue that the health system has suffered "dramatic underfunding" for years.
After more than a year of battling the coronavirus pandemic, many hospitals say resources are stretched and that staff are close to exhaustion. Covid-19 cases and fatalities remain stubbornly high, with more than 21,000 confirmed cases and almost 500 fatalities recorded on Thursday alone. The previous day’s death toll was 638.
However, occupancy of intensive care units nationwide has slowly lowered over the past week to 66.3 percent, dropping to 64.2 percent in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (AMBA), as of Thursday.