NURSES have branded a HSE initiative to pay new entrants a €22,000 salary a sexist attack on women.
They said that the female-dominated profession was being targeted at a time when women were also taking hits to child benefit and maternity pay.
More than 500 nurses assembled for the rally at the weekend, which was jointly organised by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) and the Psychiatric Nurses Association of Ireland.
They travelled from as far as Kerry, Cork, Limerick and Waterford to voice their anger. Everyone wore yellow T-shirts bearing slogans like "Right pay or no way" and "Will I go or will I stay?".
"Why are nurses being targeted?" said Carmel Whelehan, oncology nurse at St James's Hospital, Dublin. "Why not new grads in physio, occupational health, radiographers? None of them are being targeted. Administrators are not being targeted.
"It is sexist. No disrespect to my male colleagues but it is a female-dominated profession. This is exploitation of women."
The Post Qualification Nursing and Midwifery Intern Initiative, introduced by the HSE in December, will see 1,000 2012 graduates placed on a two-year scheme at 80pc of the starting salary of a full-time new recruit.
The unions are calling for a boycott of the initiative – with the HSE expected to begin recruitment before the end of the month.
INMO general secretary Liam Doran said that its consequences will be long term.
"If we do not respect ourselves, then nobody is going to respect us. This is in our hands in terms of stopping it before it starts," he said.
"If the 2012 graduates find themselves working for 80pc, then every future graduate nurse will be working for that or less and less as we go along.
"If you work for nothing, you will never be idle – and that is what this Government want people to do."
Mature student Chris Finn from Waterford said: "I want to stay home – my home is Ireland, my family is in Ireland. This last hit, this is too much. This is the one that has me checking out options in the UK and Australia for when I qualify."
Nurses from students right up to reitirees railed against the HSE's failure to address spending on non-frontline staff.
Last year's graduates who had secured fixed term contracts but now find themselves out of a job or reapplying for a position through the initiative were angriest of all.
"The HSE thinks we are an easy target," said 2012 graduate Hamada Abdalla, currently working with St Loman's Mental Health Services.
"We practically run the wards. We are the blood and veins of the HSE and they are just spitting in our faces."
The HSE has described the initiative as an opportunity for graduates to gain "substantial clinical experience".
It says that its current arrangement with agency nurses and funding overtime is unsustainable.