Hungary nurses demand better pay to stem exodus

By Anita Komuves

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - More than 1,000 nurses gathered in Budapest on Saturday to demand better pay, after a survey showed many of them are considering leaving Hungary for higher salaries elsewhere, straining a healthcare system already short of workers.

Like many east European countries, Hungary is grappling with a shortage of doctors and medical workers as local salaries pale in comparison to western European levels.

Nurses wearing white T-shirts and carrying white balloons gathered in a central Budapest square. Hundreds of them arrived from outside the capital and travelled hours to attend the rally.

"There could be a huge wave of nurses quitting when pandemic travel restrictions are lifted across Europe," said Zoltan Balogh, chairman of the Chamber of Hungarian Healthcare Professionals.

Around 400-500 nurses leave Hungary every year, Balogh said, and according to an online survey conducted by the chamber last month more than 1,000 nurses are contemplating leaving Hungary.

"We are the mid-level professionals who are always forgotten when salaries are raised," said Ibolya Pinter Gal, who has been a nurse for more than three decades.

She has been caring for COVID-19 patients in an intensive care unit since March 2020. She was promised extra pay for the high-risk work, but has still not received it.

The Chamber invited Minister of Human Resources Miklos Kasler to the protest. He did not attend but sent a letter thanking nurses for their work.

The most important demand of the nurses is a wage hike that is proportional to the recent hike in doctors' salaries.

Parliament passed a healthcare bill last October that brought a substantial wage hike for doctors. The increase did not apply to nurses whose salaries have been raised only gradually since 2019.

The new law passed last fall also forced healthcare professionals to choose between working in the state-run or the private health sector. Nearly 4,000 people, 3.7% of all medical professionals decided to quit the public health system by the deadline for their decision in March.

A total of 30,026 people have died of COVID-19 in Hungary as of Friday, a country with a population of close to 10 million.

(Reporting by Anita Komuves and Krisztina Fenyo; Editing by Christina Fincher)

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