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Polish nurses pitch camp to protest starvation wages - extended

She has worked 29 years day and night, on holiday and weekends caring for patients - yet Elzbieta, a Polish nurse and mother of two, still can't make ends meet. Polish nurses continue their contest with Poland's PM.

“After all these years and so much hard work I take home 1,400 zloty ($500) a month - this starvation salary for the hard work of nursing is really a joke,” says the 50-year-old brunette dressed in a white nurses' cap. Salaries in the public health sector lag far behind the average 2,500 zloty ($900) monthly wage in 2004 European Union entrant Poland.

Four days ago Elzbieta left her job and her family in far-away Mielec, southern Poland, to join around a 1,000 nurses from across the country camped out in front of the Prime Minister's Chancellery in the capital Warsaw. Nurses have pitched hundreds of tents, turning a long green a leafy walkway across the street from central government offices into a camp ground, complete with portable cook-out and sanitary facilities. Miners, teachers and other public sector workers have voiced support for the protest camp, which has grown rapidly since being pitched a week ago. Across the street from the impromptu camp, a solid cordon of shiny silver metal barricades has been erected around the Prime Minister's Chancellery. Police officers clad in bullet-proof vests, white helmets and black riot gear stand on guard behind the barricade. Passersby chuckle at the heavy-handed security measures imposed to counter the peaceful nurses' protest.

Health workers union officials said Monday they intend to keep the protest camp running until mid-August. Four nurses are also occupying the Prime Minister's Chancellery, refusing to leave despite threats of legal action against them for what Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski describes as an “illegal occupation.” “We'll have to file a criminal complaint with prosecutors,” Kaczynski told reporters about possible steps against the nurses. But rattling water bottles filled with pebbles or coins, hundreds of protesting nurses demanding wage increases think the chronic under-funding of Poland's public health sector is criminal. Last week Premier Kaczynski said higher wages in the health sector could come only after a significant tax hikes - especially for the most wealthy Poles. He also proposed the decision on tax hikes be taken to a public referendum.

Opposition politician have criticized the idea of a tax referendum as socially divisive and untenable while financial experts agree the Kaczynski government should instead push ahead with an overhaul of Poland's lumbering public administration in order to free up cash for health spending. After 25 years on her feet in hospitals, nurse Anna is bitter at what she sees as the unsympathetic response of the Kaczynski government. She mulls following in the footsteps of thousands of Polish nurses who found better-paid jobs in Western Europe after Poland's 2004 entry into the European Union. “We can either leave Poland for higher wages in Great Britain or Ireland or Germany or stay home and demand better salaries - a lot of us have chosen to emigrate, many of us want to - but not all of us can go,” she observes.

Tensions escalate in Poland as striking nurses refuse to talk to the Polish Prime Minister anywhere other than in his Chancellory and he demands that they meet him at a Dialog Center. The nurses have substantial support from other trade unions. In Warsaw, the nurses have set up a 'White City' of about 130 tents. The nurses and the Government are not talking because they have not been able to agree to where they should talk. The Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, does not want to talk with people who have illegally occupied his Chancellory. The nurses say that a host should talk with his guests in his home. Each feels that agreeing to talks on the others terms will be detrimental to their positions. This week the weather has not been the best for the nurses with a pattern of showers and thunderstorms crossing Poland and projected to do so for the next few days. In spite of the weather, the nurses have announced that they are prepared to continue their demonstration through August if necessary. The real issue of wages has now become secondary to where the parties should talk. No third party has offered a face saving third location. (,