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British nurses’ pay lags behind other European countries

Taking into account what wages can buy, nurses in the UK earned less than the average of the 20 EU members that are part of the OECD.

By Aisha Majid

Nurses in England affiliated to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union are striking again today and tomorrow, 18-19 January. This round of strike action by the RCN follows two days in December when tens of thousands of nurses around the UK walked out. It was the first-ever national strike in the RCN’s more than 100-year history.

The reason for the dispute is pay.

According to the union, which represents two thirds of the UK’s nursing workforce, nurses have suffered years of real-terms pay cuts. It wants a pay rise for nurses that is 5 per cent higher than inflation. The government has said that the demands are unaffordable. Last July it instituted a pay rise of £1,400 for most NHS nurses. 

According to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a member organisation of 38 of the world’s market economies, pay for UK nurses is among the lowest in Europe when the cost of living standards and average salaries in country are taken into account. Its 2022 “Health at a Glance” report, published in December, reported that, taking into account purchasing power parity (what wages can buy), nurses in the UK earned less than the average of the 20 EU members that are part of the OECD.

Many other European countries with comparable populations or economies to the UK also paid their nurses more. Nurses in Germany for example made €44,100 in 2020 (the latest year for which data is available), compared with €34,500 in the UK. Nurses in Belgium made €62,300. Excluding eastern and southern Europe, only nurses in France and Finland are paid less than in the UK. 

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Nurses in some other European countries are also paid much more than the average wage. Nurses in Spain for example are paid 1.5 times the average salary, while nurses in Ireland are paid 1.2 times as much – the same as the average across the 20 EU states in the OECD. In the UK nurses make the equivalent of the average wage in the UK.

[See also: I'm a critical care nurse - here's why I'm on the verge of quitting]

Analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that since 2010 pay for nurses in the UK has failed to keep pace with inflation and average earnings in both the private and public sectors.

The same OECD “Health at a Glance” report shows that in contrast to the UK where nurses’ pay has fallen by 8 per cent in real terms since 2010, in other European countries earnings have kept up with inflation. Among the OECD’s European members that have data for 2020, only Greece, Italy and Portugal have seen larger real terms’ cuts.  

Today (18 January) the government is attempting to push controversial anti-strike legislation through the House of Commons. The proposed Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill would limit the extent of industrial action by enforcing a basic level of service in key sectors such as healthcare, education, rail, fire and nuclear commissioning. 

The RCN has warned that more of its members in England will go on strike in February if there is no progress in negotiations by the end of January.  

[See also: Nurses don't strike lightly]

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