Canada’s health care system depends on the commitment and work of registered practical nurses, licensed practical nurses and registered nurses, along with the other front-line health care workers who together make delivery of health care possible. Yet Canada is facing a crisis in retaining and hiring nurses.

Right-wing provincial governments are attacking the integrity of the nursing profession. They are threatening access to stable, decent union jobs by funnelling public money into staffing agencies rather than offering the wages and benefits that nurses deserve. Research from the UK shows that agency nurses tend to have less training and deliver poorer outcomes for patients than regularly employed nurses in the public system. Front line health care workers know firsthand that agency staffing creates challenges on the floor, with underpaid public staff having to step in to fill in the gaps in agency staff’s training and knowledge.

Despite this, investigations by the Globe & Mail and the Toronto Star indicate that public spending on agency staffing has exploded across Canada. In Ontario for example, 78 Ontario hospitals used private agency nurses in 2022, compared with 31 in 2020-21, costing Ontarians $168.3 million in public funds. According to the Manitoba NDP, the previous government spent $3.9 million in one year to fill shortages in Winnipeg alone. Nova Scotia’s Department of Seniors and Long-term Care also spent over triple their budget on agency staffing after private staffing agencies price-gouged the province. These are millions in public funds not spent on decent wages and benefits for regularly employed nurses and health care workers.

But thanks to the pressure of health care workers and the labour movement, governments are finally starting to wake up to the negative impacts of agency staffing in health care. In April 2023, Québec passed a law that would phase out the use of private recruitment agencies in the health care system, with a full ban by the end of 2025. Auditors-general in New Brunswick and Newfoundland are investigating the outsized costs of agency staffing in their health care systems.

CUPE has fought for stronger public health care by calling for higher staffing levels and sustainable workloads, better wages and benefits, and healthier and safer workplaces. Recently, the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions won a 6% raise in arbitration after workers mobilized to overturn the Doug Ford government’s illegal public sector wage cap. CUPE New Brunswick workers are organizing to defend pensions and collective bargaining rights for workers in acute care and long-term care. In Quebec, CUPE health care workers as part of the provincial Front Commun won a 17.4% raise through a coordinated strike.