The case of “the nurse in black”: Mária Sándor’s fight for Hungarian healthcare

Today I will write about something I most likely should have covered about three months ago when a humble nurse from the Péterfy Hospital in Budapest decided to take things into her own hands.

It is a well-known fact that there is a shortage of nurses due to the very low wages and the resultant emigration of hundreds of nurses every year. Therefore, nurses must work overtime. But hospital administrators, strapped for funds, regularly withhold money allocated for overtime. The nurses who desperately need the extra money earned this way often don’t get paid for months on end. One of these nurses was Mária Sándor, who decided to protest not just her own low salary and unpaid overtime pay but also the miserable working conditions that exist in Hungarian hospitals. She is a soft spoken but fearless and resolute person who has done more to call attention to the plight of Hungarian healthcare workers than the Hungarian Medical Association, the Association of Hospital Employees, and the largest trade union of hospital workers combined.

Mária Sándor seems to me a sophisticated activist who instinctively knows how to call public attention to her cause. She started off by giving an interview to RTL Klub in which she complained about the non-payment of overtime. Zoltán Balog’s ministry, however, found everything to be in order; she had no reason to complain. It was at this point that Sándor decided to stage a one-woman demonstration. She appeared in a black uniform instead of the usual white to signify the funereal state of Hungarian healthcare. Her superior ordered her to change, which she did. That was on April 18, and although she still works at the same hospital Mária Sándor has not abandoned her fight. She simply refuses to give up, although there is considerable pressure on her to quit. Her protest within the walls of her hospital has since spread to the streets.

Sandor Maria

Why does a single nurse have to start such a protest movement? The answer is simple: none of the organizations that allegedly  represent her and her colleagues does much for them. There are two unions in the sector but only one, MSZ EDDSZ led by Ágnes Cser, is entitled to negotiate with the government, ostensibly because it is larger than the Független Egészségügyi Szakszervezet (Independent Union of Healthcare Workers / FESZ). I suspect it is not a negligible consideration that Ágnes Cser nowadays is not the fierce fighter for the rights of her union’s membership that she was during the socialist-liberal years. The third organization that is supposed to represent healthcare workers is the Magyar Egészségügyi Szakdolgozói Kamara (Hungarian Association of Professional Healthcare Workers / ESZK), which is a professional association similar to those that exist in other professions, like the medical association of doctors or the association of lawyers. Ágnes Cser refused to support the demonstrations organized by FESZ and ESZK in May, claiming that she was in the middle of wage negotiations and one doesn’t demonstrate while negotiating. The demonstrators turned their backs on her and began whistling, a sign of strong disapproval.

While a healthcare worker can decide whether she/he wants to join a trade union, membership in the “kamara” is compulsory by virtue of a law passed by parliament in 2010 and effective as of April 1, 2011, which unfortunately wasn’t an April’s Fool joke. Surely, the poorly paid nurses were not exactly thrilled to pay a monthly fee, which ESZK apparently tried to keep low.

The current president of the association is Dr. Zoltán Balogh, not to be confused with Zoltán Balog, the head of EMMI, the ministry in charge of healthcare. At one point Mária Sándor in an interview on ATV told Olga Kálmán that an official of the association approached her after her interview with RTL Klub and asked her to join “their team” but that she should be “opportunistic” (megalkuvó). Of course, it is possible that what she actually meant was “ready to compromise,” but given the attitude of the association’s president toward the present government I wouldn’t be terribly surprised that the word “opportunistic” was actually used. How fiercely this association under the leadership of Balogh is fighting for the rights of ESZK’s members should be evident to anyone who reads the servile letter he sent to Viktor Orbán right after the election of 2014 in the name of the association. “Allow me in my own name and in the name of the more than 100,000 members of our association to express my best wishes to you on the occasion of your repeated re-election. I wish you and your co-leaders the best of health to responsibly govern our homeland, Hungary, and to successfully continue the endeavors you began earlier. In the name of the leadership of our organization allow me to offer our cooperation, our professional expertise, and our public support for the successful achievement of your future goals.” He proudly displayed this letter on ESZK’s website.

After reading this fawning letter by Balogh, I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that, although Mária Sándor hasn’t appeared in the news at all since late May, two days ago she received a letter from the Zala County Ethical Committee of ESZK. Zoltán Balogh had initiated an investigation of her conduct because “she has many times transgressed the regulations of the ethical code of the association.” Why in Zala County in the far southwest corner in the country when Sándor works in Budapest? I guess for the same reason Tünde Hagyó, the head of the Judicial Office, picked courts in other cities for political cases, in the hope of verdicts favorable to the prosecution.

Mária Sándor, who is by now quite media savvy, immediately contacted several media outlets, and her name resurfaced in the news. A day later, it was all over. Zoltán Balogh decided to drop the charges. When asked by Olga Kálmán why he decided to bring charges against Mária Sándor, his feeble answer was that he and his family had received death threats and that “as a father of three [he] couldn’t risk waiting until someone actually carries out the threat.”

Many people are certain that pressure was put on Balogh to silence the troublemaker and that perhaps the ukase came from the ministry of human resources. I find that unlikely, however, because the undersecretary in charge of healthcare, Gábor Zombor, assured Sándor of his support in case she is being unfairly treated. I agree with Zsuzsanna Körmendy of Magyar Nemzet who thinks that the reason for Balogh’s action was the “very uncomfortable question that if a single nurse can start such a large movement then what is the association good for?” Indeed.  It’s “good for” collecting monthly dues for a compulsory membership in a useless association that cooperates with the government to the fullest. Is it any wonder that nothing has happened to improve the lot of healthcare workers?

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Guest

It’s not only healthcare workers that are expected to do unpaid overtime:
One of our neighbours works in the village kitchen that prepares more than a hundred meals every working day for the office, the school, the kindergarten and the “meals on wheels” program for sick or elderly people …
And they are expected to also cook for the falunap and other festivities, which are on Saturdays on Sundays, without extra pay of course. They are told to take a day off instead – which means that the others have to take on that extra workload of course …
The only positive aspect she sees is that often she can take some left overs home for her cat – and for the half wild street cats in the village that go unfed by their owners …
PS:
And of course they don’t have a dish washing machine – in Germany the kitchen would surely have been closed years ago for sanitary reasons …

eskild2013
Guest

See helthcareworkers on this video.
They seem ready to fight for fairness.

https://youtu.be/7RkZabb3NGY?list=PLSYwqHUFdONOjcLVr3lpKXU8yRHd7wL2r

Helthcare worker demonstration Budapest 29/5- 2015
Earn 100.000 HUF pr. month

eskild2013
Guest

Here is the heltcarevideo from demonstration 29/5- 201

https://youtu.be/7RkZabb3NGY

Poppea
Guest
What I wondered when I heard this idiocy (the ethical investigation), but already when she appeared first and then was soon effectively silenced and any solidarity with her was prohibited by fidesznik hospital managements: why, oh, why did not any of the perhaps dozen leftist parties try to help her as a way to show that they care about underpaid, overworked (and I might even say oppressed; as doctors at least have ‘power and respect’ within the health care system and within the society in general) health care workers? If this happened in 2008 Fidesz would have staged a mini revolution on her back. The inaptitude and laziness of the leftist politicians is mind-boggling. How many opportunities for potential political gain will they squander? But aside from the direct political issues, would it not be the most reasonable, humane and logical reaction from any opposition party to try to protect her, to show solidarity and support?? Any politics is necessary meta politics. Somehow the leftists don’t seem to get it. To show solidarity with one Ms. Sándor would have finally signaled to the people that they are generally sensitive to the issues of the working class, the exploited (in her… Read more »
petofi
Guest

It’s not ‘ineptitude’….
(My golly, How Green is My Valley?)
What it really is…is the revelation that the leaders of the opposition are, both:

a) afraid

b) in the pay of Orban/Fidesz

Listen, folks, the gig is up; the game is totally rigged. What’s left now is total subjugation.
“Lessons in Taming a Democratic Electorate” by Viktor the Orban.

Live it: smell it–the odoriferousness of festering lillies (see Shakespeare).

Earned and Deserved.

Hajara Magyarok!!!

István
Guest
My only experience with the Hungarian healthcare system was with Vaszary Kolos Hospital in Estergom. It was radically antiquated compared to the state of the art Northwestern University Hospital here in Chicago which was built only in the last 10 years. There was a profound lack of individualism in the care and it was reminiscent for me of bad Veterans Administration (VA) Hospitals here in the USA that have become a public scandal here. The video posted of the healthcare worker demonstration was striking in that based on appearances the average age of these Hungarian healthcare providers was much older than you see here in the USA. A common development here is for senior nurses, techs, and even some doctors to move into more let us say administrative positions or even work for the private insurance industry. The issue that Eva raised in the past of the emigration of professional workers seems to have created an older workforce and that will create even bigger problems for the future of Hungarian healthcare system. There is a move here in the USA among nurses for unionization because of the work intensity in our system, I did not see that level of intensity… Read more »
Guest

Re: “The issue that Eva raised in the past of the emigration of professional workers seems to have created an older workforce and that will create even bigger problems for the future of Hungarian healthcare system”

Maybe an understatement Istvan. Hungarian psychology and attitudes to health care and everything it encompasses is weird. It sure looks to me that some kind of ‘suffering’ instinct operates in the mind.

There’s a phrase where it’s said , “no one here gets out alive’. But Hungary from the looks of it makes things much much harder for its citoyens before the exit. In a way I think it just shows a mordant and depressing attitude to Magyar living and life itself. Obviously health care isn’t top of mind in the administration. Live and let live I guess. Can’t stop the inevitable..what the heck it’s no use.

spectator
Guest

“Live and let live I guess. Can’t stop the inevitable..what the heck it’s no use.”

Still overly optimistic, I’m afraid!
“As soon as you don’t have any use, (to us) you’d better disappear for good..!” – more like it.
‘Let live’ would mean that – at least – they wouldn’t hinder you get on living, its not the case there: the ‘unnaturally selected’ doing their best to accelerate natural selection, or so it seems.
Only the fittest, and among those who support the system unconditionally who deserve the “let live” part.
The rest may blame themselves for their ill fate, what they deserve anyway..!

Guest
OT A superb analysis of the British, German and French models of attempting to integrate non-European immigrants from the Greater Middle East, Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean into the mainstreams of British, German and French societies: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/western-europe/2015-03-01/failure-multiculturalism The study appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs. The bottom line is that in the presence of grass roots prejudice, fear, suspicion and rejection of the “other”, neither the British multicultural, nor the German “apartheid”, nor the French assimilationist models of integration are capable of producing any of the results they actually aim for. With the disintegration of the class-driven ideologies of the left, civil society attitudes in Western Europe are increasingly driven by ethnic identity politics. Unless this changes, the prospects of integrating millions upon millions of non-European immigrants into the European mainstream is unfortunately dim to the extreme, and that is putting it very mildly. This has lessons for Hungary too in the present circumstances. Interesting to note in this connection that Moslem refugees and would-be economic immigrants are all trying to get into Europe, and not least Britain, rather than ultra-rich Saudi Arabia or the Gulf Sheikdoms, who by the way, would rather spend billions… Read more »
cseperke
Guest
I won’t read the article but what you wrote about is a lot of BS, I’m afraid. First, nobody wants to come to Hungary, there are no Muslim immigrants to speak of, even Hungarians leave by the hundreds of thousands (just today there were two articles, now even butchers and bakers leave and in Sopron one business literally cannot find workers because they are all in Austria), why would any sane migrant stay in Hungary? Any mention of Hungary in this regard is misleading: there is no immigration issue in Hungary, there is an issue with temporary migrants transiting through Hungary. Second, why would it be the obligation of the KSA or Qatar to help fellow Muslims? Would an the Italian government (Italy inhabited mostly by Christians) be obliged morally to help (express solidarity via financial programs with) Hungarians or Ukrainians or Greek or poor Brazilians? Is being a Christian or a Muslim what fundamentally defines identity or perhaps national, ethnic identities or gender identities etc.may be equally or even more important? The Islam is by no means a homogeneous faith (to say the least) and it reflects total lack of information to imply otherwise. Those Muslims must be all… Read more »
Guest

@cseperke
August 13, 2015 at 2:11 pm

On reflection, I have to concede that you are quite right in respect of my somewhat pointless excursus into the topic of current Moslem immigration into Europe in general, and Hungary in particular.

Your point about Jewish Israeli society, though, is a bit of a non-sequitur, since I made no claims about its homogeneity: a claim like that would obviously be quite absurd.

However, the article in Foreign Affairs is well worth reading (and has nothing to do with the irrelevant personal opinions aired in the second part of my post).

Kormos
Guest

@Mike Balint. Your so called excursus was neither pointless nor BS. It was quite interesting, although you did not elaborate further.

Bülbül
Guest

I agree that the immigration into Europe by devout Muslims is problematic and that their social situation is fraught with serious issues. There’s no denying that. But it is really off-topic because it has no relevance to Hungary in any sense as there is no material immigration into Hungary by Muslims or from any country where Muslims predominate.

Guest
Re: “I agree that the immigration into Europe by devout Muslims is problematic and that their social situation is fraught with serious issues. There’s no denying that. But it is really off-topic because it has no relevance to Hungary in any sense as there is no material immigration into Hungary by Muslims or from any country where Muslims predominate” You know in a way I am not too sure the topic is indeed ‘off-topic’ if we assume that Muslims indeed are settling to other countries even though not to Hungary. The problematic issue here is that for every movement into another country by migrants it’s probably another nail toward the bulwark of far-right construction building against those movements in all countries that are in close geographic proximity. And with that comes the great opportunity for those parties to argue against the unwanted demographics but to mold the state away from democratic activity and towards a hijacking of rights and checks and balances all under the guise of ostensibly providing for ‘security’. Migration and immigration today in Europe seems it is not only a demographic issue but turning out really to be a national security issue as well. All autocrats existing… Read more »
spectator
Guest

Generally it seems that the present government doing an excellent job to “cleanse” the country from the weak and from the enlightened people, so they can rule over the obedient and healthy workforce at their will, no reason to worry about costly healthcare or resistance.

The formula rather simple: cut back on education and healthcare, that is!
Within a decade all the “problem” people is gone, one way or the other, and you’re good to go, your rule is there to stay – ad infinitum!
It isn’t the question of money, – there is plenty of it – its the question of priority and wish. Oh, well…

Anybody with some other explanation?

Member

An OT but it directly relates to @Eva’s post on the other day.
For me this was the news of the day and because of the”uborka szezon” it might go unnoticed:
http://hungarianfreepress.com/2015/08/13/hungarys-government-warns-jewish-community-about-muslim-refugees/
Let me quote half sentence from this report on the Government – Jewish community leaders roundtable: … “Based on the report compiled by the Hungarian State News Agency (MTI), ministers of the Orban government are engaged in a classic example of fear mongering… “
… and let me add one word to it: Exactly!

Guest

I wish that we would call them ‘displaced persons’ rather than ‘migrants’. They really are DPs.

bimbi
Guest
I step forward, rather belatedly, to offer my admiration and praise to Maria Sandor for her very courageous stance vis-à-vis the Orban government’s handling of healthcare and the conformist intransigence of hospital administrators in not supporting nursing staff better. If anyone is in the “front line” of healthcare, it is the nursing staff who, surely, do not receive their fair share of ‘envelopes’ that doctors and surgeons receive. But will no one in Hungary take up the cause that Ms. Sandor has defined? No protests from other staff acting in coordination? No outrage from the Hungarian public (no of course not, because in the craziness that is Orbanistan, one outrage replaces another every two weeks…) My experience in Hungarian hospitals has been of being cared for in exemplary manner by severely overworked doctors, all of whom work very long hours in very poorly equipped facilities for a very large patient load with a dedication that is astonishing. Very capable young people are eager to enter the medical profession despite the failings of the government to fund the system. Hats off for Maria Sandor! Why is it not now clear to the electorate, to the Hungarian public, that the Orban government’s… Read more »
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