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Tensions at 999 call centres as workers 'bid' for holidays 18 months in advance

Workers balloted for industrial action at the emergency call service in recent weeks.

WORKERS AT IRELAND’s two 999 call centres have called for mediators to intervene over a series of workplace problems, including some staff allegedly “bidding” for holidays 18 months in advance.

Union members at the country’s two Emergency Call Answering Service (ECAS) centres in Meath and Donegal voted overwhelmingly for industrial action late last year.

However BT Ireland, which runs the centre, has rejected an invitation to resolve the dispute at the Workplace Relations Commission.

Staff who spoke to The Journal said there are not enough workers to provide cover, claiming they need to book holidays more than a year in advance and others said the demands of the job are not recognised by their employer.

The Communication Workers Union’s deputy general secretary Ian McCardle said it has heard allegations from workers that raise questions about the “workplace culture” in the centre, including claims that staff were told that the work of the call operators was something that can be done by “monkeys”.

BT Ireland told The Journal that it strongly contests claims made about the workplace in its Navan and Ballyshannon call centres, and instead pointed to a 14% payrise for staff last year.

It also disputed that there was any issue with the annual leave entitlements for the emergency call service and said it had increased the days available for workers.


BT Ireland has had the contract for 999 call services since 2009, having won a renewal in 2017. But tensions between staff and management have become an issue in recent years, and have mounted over the past three years as some staff began to unionise.

At present around 25 workers have joined unions – more than one-third of the overall workforce in Ireland’s two 999 centres, located in Navan, Co Meath and Ballyshannon, Co Donegal.

McCardle, the union representative for CWU members in the company, said the centres, which direct callers to the appropriate emergency services, have seen differences between staff and management.

“It’s a tough job and has to be done at high pressure, and quite emotive sometimes. The calls range from a cat stuck in a tree to suicidal ideation and traffic accidents, and it’s really stressful.

“It’s very strange for people to need to book holidays over a year in advance given the high stress nature of the work they do.

“Any annual leave policy should be fair, should be transparent and should be open to everyone to understand how it works and it shouldn’t be a situation where staff bid for leave 12-18 months in advance.”

The company has also opted not to speak to the union for collective bargaining talks and uses an internal process instead.

McCardle told The Journal that the company needed to accept the issues raised had to be dealt with at the WRC.

“What needs to happen now is that BT should reconsider its position and accept the invitation from the WRC to attend a conciliation hearing.

“That’s what we do in the state of Ireland when there is an industrial issue and they’re enjoying the benefits of the State contract. At least have a dialogue, let the issues be discussed and come to some positive working relationship with the trade unions and the staff that they represent.”

In response, the company said that “17 employees out of a total ECAS workforce of approximately 80″ voted for industrial action and added that it did not accept the WRC invite as it refuses to engage with the CWU for talks.

“[The WRC conciliation service] is a voluntary process. As BT Ireland does not conduct local bargaining with the CWU or other trade unions, it was therefore not possible in this circumstance to attend on this specific matter, and we respectfully declined the invitation of the Workplace Relations Commission to attend conciliation,” it said.

McCardle told The Journal that the union’s membership has grown since the ballot.

“To get anyone to vote in favour of industrial action in an anti-union workplace and in an anti-union workplace that delivers a vital public service demonstrates the strength and feeling that these workers have to their issues,” he said.

“BT would be better suited rather than counting votes by talking to their employees. Instead of being adversarial they should be collaborative.” 


McCardle said group meetings with management have not succeeded at resolving the issues, with staff “leaving more disheartened” rather than hopeful.

In response to The Journal, BT Ireland said it rejected what it called “false and misleading” claims and said it has “worked extensively” with employees in ECAS.

The company said it has “listened to their issues, suggestions, and ideas, and taken concrete steps to address them”, which it said has resulted in “significant enhancements to a wide range of terms and conditions”.

Tensions partly reside in how the company refuses to speak to the union for collective bargaining talks, instead preferring an internal employee forum called BT Voices.

BT Ireland said it prefers the “direct engagement model” of the internal forum, which is chaired by the managing director and sees ECAS operators and other employees across the business attend to discuss workplace issues.

“These employees are elected by their own peers to represent them,” BT Ireland said.

“BT, of which BT Ireland is a subsidiary of, is a global company with over 100,000 employees and has many different engagement models with employees in the geographies in which it operates,” the company added.

“In Ireland, where we have a smaller business of approximately 650 people, we can deal directly with our employees, continually evolving to take on board their constructive feedback and ideas.”

It added that it fully recognises an employee’s right to join a trade union, but for “collective bargaining purposes we believe our successful direct model of engagement and consultation is the best channel”.

The company claimed that “90 action items” were raised by employee representatives and “all were resolved to their full satisfaction”.

Responding to the company’s claims about BT Voices’ effectiveness, McCardle said it is a “red herring” for resolving workplace issues. “There’s no back and forth, it’s a rubber stamping mechanism,” he added.

The company said it has increased pay by over 14% in the past 18 months, with two pay increases last year.

Annual leave also increased from 22 to 25 days, including a range of other measures for pension contributions, allowance rate boosts for weekend shifts and remote working, according to a spokesperson for the company.

However, the CWU said the rollout of these conditions were as part of an agreement struck with the union’s UK counterpart and which applied to the company’s staff in Britain and Northern Ireland.

“So in effect, they’re actually applying a union’s collectively bargained pay agreement to the staff in the Ireland’s ECAS, but doing it without talking to the trade union in Ireland that represents them,” McCardle said.

He said the company’s approach to annual leave had resulted in a “survival of the fittest” as workers bid for time off more than a year in advance.

While a contract procured from the State, it is structured so that phone operator companies, such as Vodafone, pay a nominal charge instead of the customer to BT when a 999 call is made. The fee per communication is currently €3.78 and this will decrease to €3.12 from February 2024.

McCardle said it’s a lucrative contract for the company.

“There is scope within it for better staff resourcing so that we don’t have this situation. I think the annual leave situation tells its own story in terms of staff retention and recruitment, which is clearly an issue.”

In response to the concerns about annual leave for workers, BT said the accusations were false and risked “disrupting our operation of this important service”.

It added: “We are very flexible on annual leave, however, we do also have to take into account having sufficient resources to cover a specific shift for what is an emergency service. From a resourcing viewpoint, not only is there adequate cover, we also recruit a number of times per year into this service.”

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