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Taoiseach says offer to phase in pay increase for striking health workers was made 'out of good will'

A strike by around 10,000 healthcare support workers is taking place tomorrow.

Image: LEAH FARRELL

Updated Jun 25th 2019, 6:30 PM

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said tomorrow’s strike of about 10,000 workers can be avoided.

The strike is taking place in 38 different hospitals and healthcare facilities with Health Minister Simon Harris describing the action as “quite extraordinary”.

Speaking during Leaders’ Questions today, Varadkar said there has been “detailed engagement” involving the parties in the dispute, which relates to a pay increase arising from a job-evaluation process.

Opposition parties rounded on the government today, with both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin stating that the workers should be paid what they were promised.

Speaking in the Dáil, Varadkar said staff will receive a pay increase of 2.75% this year.

“That is in the bag and half of it is already paid with the rest to be paid in September. The vast majority of them will also receive an incremental pay increase. This is about the timing of a third pay increase for this year: the pay increase that arises from the job-evaluation process,” he said.

Varadkar acknowledged that the government accepts the outcome of the job-evaluation process which recommended the pay rise for workers.

The government has attempted to reach an agreement in the past couple of days, said the Taoiseach, who said they agreed to begin to phase in these pay increases this year from 2019.

“Even though there is not provision for it in the budget, out of good will in an effort to resolve this dispute an offer was made to begin phasing in these increases from 2019. This will be a third increase on top of an incremental pay increase and on top of the 2.75% being received,” said Varadkar, who added:

Unfortunately that offer was not accepted by the unions and they have decided now to go ahead with their strike. The offer that was made last Friday stands, which is for this dispute to go to the Labour Court for binding arbitration.
Where disputes cannot be resolved, where they are intractable, where it has not been possible to find a compromise in the WRC, in the past we have gone to the Labour Court. The employer’s side, the Government side, is willing to go to the Labour Court for a binding determination and we regret that the union side is not. It is unusual for a union to refuse to go to the Labour Court.

Ahead of the planned strike, the HSE has outlined what it expects will be some of the main issues for patients arriving out of tomorrow’s strike by around 10,000 healthcare support workers.

In an update on its contingency plans for tomorrow’s strike, the HSE says it is trying to ensure “minimum disruption to patient services” and to “ensure patient dignity and that essential daily care remains in place”.

The HSE says it has been liaising with Siptu representatives at the affected hospitals to gauge the nature of the disruption tomorrow. 

It says that services that will be mainly impacted are:

  • Deferral of some elective inpatient procedures
  • Significant cancellation of scope procedures
  • Reduced outpatient services
  • Reduced laboratory services for GPs
  • Reduced catering services for both patients and staff
  • Reduced operating theatre activity

The issue at the centre of the dispute relates to a disagreement between workers and the HSE over what Siptu says is its failure to implement increases in pay for Siptu members arising from a job evaluation scheme.

The workers affected include those in portering, household and catering services as well as employed as health care assistants, maternity care assistants, laboratory aides, chefs and surgical instrument technicians.

Siptu said yesterday that the government “never meaningfully engaged with Siptu representatives” on the issues and that “too many issues remain unresolved” leading to tomorrow’s action. 

A previous 24-hour workplace stoppage that was planned for last week was averted to allow for talks at the Workplace Relations Commission but it was announced yesterday that these talks failed

Speaking to reporters this morning, Harris said time should now be allowed for the Labour Court to intervene.

I find it quite extraordinary that a trade union would bring our health service to a point of such difficulty without even going to the Labour Court. The management side has engaged in really good faith on this, we made an offer and that offer would see payments made to people starting in November of this year, which is quite a significant offer to make in the context of the Brexit scenario that we face.

“Now even if Siptu didn’t like that offer, the Labour Court still remains available and it seems absolutely extraordinary that we will have an all-out strike by many Siptu employees tomorrow across 38 sites without even going to the Labour Court,” Harris added. 

Speaking later this morning, Labour leader Brendan Howlin said that Harris had been “sent out to attack the union’s position” and that the government is reneging on promises made to the healthcare workers involved

“I think this is absolutely scandalous that it has got to these stage. This was an agreement entered into in the Lansdowne Road architecture for a reevaluation of a variety of workers in the hospital setting, of their skills,” Howlin said.

“With an understanding and I was the minister who gave the understanding, that these matters would be addressed when the evaluation was done.”

The HSE, I understand want to honour that understanding and it is just unacceptable that the government would renege on it now and seek to walk away from it.”

The hospitals that are affected are listed on the HSE’s website and the executive has said that any patients whose scheduled procedure or service will be affected will be contacted.

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Rónán Duffy

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