Wed | Jun 7, 2023

Labour pains

Community midwives, union at odds over benefits and representation

Published:Sunday | February 12, 2023 | 1:28 AMChristopher Thomas - Sunday Gleaner Writer

Sharon Banbury-Edwards, acting president of the Jamaica Midwives Association.
Sharon Banbury-Edwards, acting president of the Jamaica Midwives Association.


Despite the Jamaica Midwives Association (JMA) signing on to the Government’s public sector compensation review last November, several community midwives are set on a potential collision course with their union over deducted benefits and a reported lack of adequate representation.

The JMA was one of 14 unions that signed the wage agreement with the Ministry of Finance between November 15 and 17, 2022, with the compensation system to take effect over a three-year period beginning April 1, 2022 and costing $120 billion over the period.

But last December, following that signing ceremony, several community midwives protested when motor vehicle upkeep allowances were recovered from retroactive salary payments.

Two months later, Grace Hylton, a midwife assigned to the Western Regional Health Authority (WRHA), remains unconvinced that the JMA, which represents a third of the island’s 1,000 trained midwives, is doing enough to ensure that its members are adequately compensated or that their benefits will be protected.

“I don’t think we are getting adequate representation. I don’t think our association is doing a very good job, and I am not afraid to speak about it. We are not being communicated to efficiently or at all, so we know not what the stance is between our association, which is our sole bargaining body, and the Government,” Hylton told The Sunday Gleaner.

“The situation sees us going home with less than what we would normally be going home with because our allowances were rolled into our basic salary so it can be taxed. If you normally had a non-taxable allowance, that would be the oomph for your salary, and if it goes, what are we left with?” questioned Hylton. “We heard that a letter was sent from our association to the Ministry of Finance, and we have heard that the ministry has received it. However, a date has not yet been set for the association to meet with them, and I don’t think they are pushing for it.”

The midwives’ responsibilities include helping expectant mothers with home or hospital birth deliveries, providing care for mothers before, during and after birth, conducting regular home visits and immunisation of babies, and providing family planning services.

In Jamaica, midwives are placed in one of three categories – level one, which consists of midwives who work at hospitals and other medical facilities; level two, consisting of midwives who work directly in their assigned communities; and level three, consisting of supervisors for the previous two categories.

But the midwives who spoke with The Sunday Gleaner expressed fear that they are being starved of resources to carry out their jobs due to salary reductions stemming from their allowances being rolled over into and then taken out of their taxable salary, resulting in them taking home less pay than they had done prior to last December.

Travelling officers

Hylton noted that the former allowance for motor vehicle upkeep would be used to travel to care for patients across their assigned territories.

“We are supposed to be travelling officers. However, that allowance that we would get for our vehicle upkeep, that was absorbed into our basic salary. Now, we are being informed that we can take a taxi and go anywhere we want to go, so we don’t necessarily have to drive our vehicle, but if you’re going to give me that ultimatum, it means I am not longer a travelling officer,” Hylton argued.

“We have home visits and home deliveries, and when we would normally do our home deliveries, we get out of our houses at the beck and call of our patients, at any time of the day or night. I have to jump out of the house, sometimes with my children in my vehicle because I cannot leave my children alone in the house,” Hylton added. “Now, I would not be comfortable going to do a home delivery while knowing that at the end of the day, if I claim for the session, I cannot claim for the miles that I travel.”

Josephine*, another midwife assigned to the WRHA, also complained about the travel allowance now being taxable, as well as alleged discrepancies in salary increases.

“The midwives in the hospital got a more than 100 per cent increase, for which we’re happy for them, but what should have been done is to give us a 100 per cent increase as well, and then you put something on it to mark the difference between a level one and a level two midwife, and then you would put our car upkeep allowance on it if you want to. But that’s not what they did; they made our car upkeep be a major part of deciding what we should get every month, and so while the midwives in the hospital got an extra $105,000 or $110,000 on their salary, I think we only got $20,000 or $30,000,” said Josephine.

“The persons in the JMA did not call a meeting until three weeks after we got paid, and when the meeting was called, we thought it would be to say that they saw what was happening and have taken the necessary steps to address it. But the meeting was just to hear what our problem was, and that was another slap in the face, because we thought that something would have already been done ... . It’s like they don’t care,” Josephine griped. “The thing is that more persons are going to leave because you have persons who have never thought about leaving before, like myself, and they are planning to leave.”

The concerns are not limited to western Jamaica, as Alice*, a community midwife assigned to the South East Regional Health Authority, told The Sunday Gleaner that she and her colleagues have had difficulty getting clear answers about the agreement signed by the JMA.

“Nobody from the association is communicating with us, and we haven’t even been privy to what was signed, so I don’t know and nobody else knows what they signed. We have been promised the document from I don’t know when, and we still can’t see the document,” Alice complained. “Everybody feels the same way, it is just that we have come to accept it because the document has already been signed and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

But Sharon Banbury-Edwards, the JMA’s acting president, is dismissing the accusations.

“That is all a lie,” Banbury-Edwards said, rejecting claims that the association was not defending the interests of midwives.

“I know a number of ladies are disgruntled, and we have had these issues before, but you have some persons who are just rogue and want to do things their way, and for the members of the executive, we believe that due process must be taken,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

Due process

“Yes, there are a lot of discrepancies with what we agreed on, but we believe that you must use due process, and we have done that. We have written to the Ministry of Finance, and they responded, and we are awaiting a date to have a meeting with them. There is nothing I can tell these ladies before I have had that meeting with [Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke] or a delegate from the ministry, and we would have communicated this to them,” Banbury-Edwards added.

While acknowledging that the midwives’ travelling allowance was rolled over into their basic pay as per the agreement, Banbury-Edwards said that move was not unique to the JMA.

“The Jamaica Civil Service Association are the ones who bargained when it comes to travelling officers, and as a result, we just piggybacked with whatever they agreed on. We in the JMA had no say in what would take place when it comes to travelling,” Banbury-Edwards explained.

“What happened prior was that because of the amount we were receiving as our basic salary, we were below the tax threshold. Once this allowance is rolled over into the salary, we are now taxed, so what they will see now is that they are getting a bigger tax removed from their salary,” she added. “I recognise that a lot of ladies are having issues, and I am personally having an issue, too, and I have said to the ladies that we recognise there are some issues, but we have to do due diligence and deal with it from that level. These ladies want us to go straight to industrial action, and we don’t do that, so we are exploring all options before we reach to that level.”

*Names changed on request.