More than 1,300 midwives are suing the Ministry of Health for having had enough of broken promises to pay and support them well.
The class action is being led by the College of Midwives and is expected to be filed in the High Court today.
It was on behalf of Lead Maternity Carers, the self-employed midwives who work in the community and provide pregnancy, childbirth and maternity care to tens of thousands of women and babies every year.
The college said the midwives were not paid fairly for their work and expenses, and were not properly supported by the ministry to do their jobs.
They, like most self-employed people, had to pay for their work-related expenses themselves, but were locked into a contract and job requirements that didn’t give them the freedom that self-employed had, it said.
Chief executive Alison Eddy said midwives have reached a number of settlements with the Department of Health over the past seven years over the issue.
None had been delivered, including the latest in 2018, which would have created a new contract and fairer wages, she said.
They had no choice but to sue the ministry for breach of contract.
“We’ve just gone through so many dead-end alleys and hit brick walls… without exercising our legal rights, we’re just going to be treated badly,” she said.
Christchurch maternity nurse Violet Clapham had applied for the class action.
Midwives like her were paid only for the service they provided, not for the other expenses they incurred doing their jobs — including the time and money they spent driving to see clients, she said.
They weren’t even paid for the medical supplies they had to buy, such as baby weighing scales and sterile gloves, she said.
They received no annual leave or sick pay, but were still contracted to provide a lot of care – including being available 24 hours a day – and that gave them little flexibility in their work.
Midwives had shown great patience to wait for the problem to be resolved, but some had moved on, she said.
“That’s the part that saddens me the most, because we see very good midwives leaving the profession,” she said.
“They have no choice but to accept the terms as they are, or leave the workforce.”
Eddy said it wasn’t just the payment that was the problem.
The midwives did not have a formal support structure as GPs did in primary health care, for example.
That meant there was no one to help provide backup or aftercare if an individual midwife or their colleague was unavailable.
Eddy said the college liked New Zealand’s model of care – where every person who gave birth had access to free care for their entire pregnancy – but midwives had to be well supported to provide it.
When the college met with Health Minister Andrew Little and Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall this month, they seemed genuinely shocked by the state of the midwives, she said.
But after so many broken promises, midwives couldn’t afford to wait any longer for action, she said.
Te Whatu Ora, the new national health authority, declined to comment on this story, saying the case was in court.
It said the government had invested significantly in obstetrics in recent years.