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Thousands of Polish doctors protest low wages

Written by: Staff

WARSAW, May 10 (Reuters) Eight thousand doctors and nurses marched in Warsaw today to protest against low pay in Poland's state-run health sector, escalating a conflict set to test the government's resolve to restrain pent-up wage demands.

Health sector professionals demand an immediate 30 percent pay increase and a more than 50 percent rise in total spending on healthcare over the next three years, saying anything less will drive them to emigrate to richer Western Europe.

''We won't watch calmly as our colleagues are forced to work abroad. We want to serve Polish patients,'' Dorota Gardias, head of the national nurses' trade union, told the protesters.

According to figures supplied by doctors' unions, only 3.9 percent of gross domestic product is spent on healthcare, the lowest ratio in the European Union -- where on average about 9 percent of output is spent on health.

''We demand an immediate pay rise, legal guarantees of decent wages, and an increase of overall spending on healthcare to 6 percent of GDP,'' said Konstanty Radziwill, the head of an association of Polish doctors.

Doctors say in the two years since Poland's joined the EU and gained access to the labour markets of EU states such as Britain, Sweden and Ireland, about nine percent of all doctors have left Poland to work abroad.

Unions say that Poland -- where incomes are about half those in the EU and doctors often fall below the national average -- faces a shortage of specialists, with surgeons or anaesthetists in high demand in Western Europe.

The conservative-led government is in a bind after promising an overhaul in healthcare before last year's election and since shying away from any landmark policy decisions.

Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz promised to deliver pay increases, but not as much as demanded by the protesters. He recently delayed a parliamentary debate about how to fix the indebted and inefficient health-sector until late May.

Economists say the healthcare wage protest could be the tip of the iceberg for the government, which may soon face similar protests from teachers or other public sector workers, who have seen pay freezes or low increases in past years.

''Protests and wage demands are now emerging as the economic situation improves, but more slowly then expected,'' said Leszek Kasek, an economist at the World Bank in Warsaw.

Reuters CH DB2239

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