The Exploitation of Student Nurses

Current Affairs editor, Rebecca Stone, looks at the lives of student nurses and the way in which we treat those who care for our most vulnerable citizens.

Nursing is vocation they say. A burden in some sense, but a necessary one, taken on by only those who have a strong will to witness and endure the suffering of others. It’s a hard but rewarding job, and student nurses know all too well the ups and downs of this industry. A four year course, and at the end you have guaranteed job security with a decent enough salary. Or do you? Because, despite providing the nation with an essential service, the student nurses of Ireland say they’re being taken advantage of in the worst possible way.

The undeniable fact is that student nurses in Ireland have been unjustly and unfairly exploited by the system they serve. The average student nurse in their second year of college can expect to spend nearly half their term time on placement in hospitals and clinics as part of their coursework. Often on 12 hours shifts, these young apprentices work just as hard, if not harder than the resident nurses, shouldering a lot of responsibility and enduring tiresome tirades by overworked staff, as they aim to give their patients the best possible care. And the pay they recieve for all this toil? €0. Nada. Nothing. Not a red cent to their names for all the hard work they put in. Only in their final year do they finally see some form of wages after years of what is essentially indentured servitude, or as some young nurses have called it ‘slavery’. Student nurses are made to go on placement for 6-8 weeks at a time without pay. If they do not do this free labour, they do not get their degree; and so the cycle of fleecing young students continues.

Young student nurses have long endured this exploitation, but why? These students are providing urgent medical care, palliative services, as well as feeding, changing and aiding their patients, but they don’t get paid a single cent for their hard work. They often juggle long work hours with college lectures and lengthy assignments. The answer is not as easy as the question. Young nurses, starting out in their industry, don’t want to make a name for themselves. They don’t want to make trouble or be labelled as ‘that nurse’, you know, the one who starts trouble. The older nurses call the shots on wards and are often resistant to change which is why so many young nurses are afraid to speak up.

A recently graduated nurse isn’t exactly making fat stacks when they join the workforce but they still get paid for the effort they put in. So why are student nurses treated so poorly? Some say it’s because they don’t work as hard or as long as the fully qualified nurses, which wrong in every sense of the word. They put in the same 50+ hour weeks as some nurses, deal with the same kind of patients and perform all the tasks they’re given to the best of their ability. Now, granted, there are some procedures they cannot perform due to the fact they haven’t learned them yet, but in general, student nurses are pretty much on par with their fully qualified counterparts. However, many student nurses say that although they are on wards to learn practically, the staff there are sometimes less than welcoming and treat the students as disposable.

So what’s the big problem with paying them what they’re owed? Obviously, everyone is well aware that the HSE is a constant state of financial distress. From essential CATH labs being a nine-to-five Monday to Friday phenomenon, to geriatric patients being left on trolleys in hallways overnight, it would be an understatement to say that Simon Harris has a lot on his plate as the Minister for Health. That being said, the people who look after Ireland’s population are invaluable, and if we can’t afford them the right of a liveable wage whilst providing this essential service, is it any wonder our nurses are fleeing to the US and Dubai for a proper standard of living? Unless the government and the HSE pull their socks up, they risk losing a highly educated workforce to foreign country, all because they can’t pay them what they deserve.