Nursing unions have called for a boycott of a HSE initiative to hire 1,000 graduate nurses at 80% of previous starting salaries, which they have described as a "cheap labour scam".

Under the initiative, the graduates would have two-year contracts instead of being permanent and would start on €22,000 a year instead of the current €26,400.

At a press conference this morning, the general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation Liam Doran described the scheme as nothing more than exploitation and opportunism.

He said the scheme would involve graduates performing the full range of nursing duties and responsibilities while being paid 80% of the bottom of the staff nurse scale.

He said this was despite the fact that starting salaries for nurses and midwives had already been cut by 24%.

He also claimed that the HSE intended to terminate the employment of hundreds of newly qualified nurses and midwives, currently receiving what he called proper salaries, and force them to reapply for the same jobs on 80% of the pay scale.

He said a HSE circular had instructed local health mangers that any hospital that had already provided contracts of employment to 2012 graduates should discontinue them immediately to force the new graduates to reapply for a post on the new lower salary.

In light of this, the INMO and the Psychiatric Nurses Association have called on all 2012 graduates to boycott the scheme when it is advertised on 11 January 2013.

They will hold a national rally at Croke Park on Saturday, 5 January of all 2012 graduates, agency nurses and those on panels awaiting permanent posts.

Further action - including a possible legal challenge under the Employment Equality Act - may follow in opposing what the unions described as "this flawed scheme".

They have also sought immediate meetings with Minister for Health James Reilly and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin.

Mr Doran said it was blatantly misleading to suggest the 1,000 graduate positions were new posts.

He said the scheme involved the displacement of agency and temporary staff by graduates on lower pay.

The General Secretary of the Psychiatric Nurses Association Des Kavanagh described the scheme as an abuse of a profession which is predominantly female.

The INMO and the Psychiatric Nurses Association represent 45,000 nurses and midwives.

Speaking on the Six One, Barry O'Brien, Director of Human Resources with the HSE, said the programme was an option for graduates looking for work here.

"I find it very difficult to understand the INMO's reaction," he added.