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'We're the people behind the scenes never taken into account': Healthcare workers on why they're prepared to strike

A strike to be held today was called off yesterday evening.

File photo.
File photo.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

A FULL 24-HOUR strike of 10,000 healthcare workers scheduled for today was called off yesterday evening. 

Emergency talks will now take place at the Workplace Relations Commission aimed at bridging the impasse between workers and the HSE.

Siptu said it had called off the strike at the request of the Workplace Relations Commission. Emergency talks will get underway today, with strike preparation continuing for two dates next week.

The issue centres around a dispute 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 scheme had been suspended during the height of the economic crash in 2008 and its reintroduction gave Siptu members hope that by staying the course, playing by the rules and working with their union there would be brighter days ahead,” Cole said.

Meanwhile, four long years have passed and Siptu members are still waiting for this recognition.

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.

Explainer: Why are 10,000 HSE staff threatening strike action?

Their work is vital to the smooth running of hospitals and healthcare centres across the country, but because of much of it takes place in the background, a lot of the time it goes unnoticed. 

Ahead of the WRC talks, TheJournal.ie spoke to two healthcare workers about the work they do in hospitals and their reasons for resorting to potential industrial action.

Francis Keane, Porter

Francis Keane (47) – a Siptu shop steward – has worked as a porter at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin for the past 18 years. Keane told TheJournal.ie that porters perform a range of duties in the hospital, with the role evolving over the years he has worked.

“We’d be porters but we do a whole range of things,” Keane said. 

We’d transfer blood samples – collect and deliver bloods; we’re trained in all aspects of manual handling, in maintaining the appearance of the hospital.

Porters assist in cases of emergencies coming into hospitals, in transferring patients to and from trolleys, in addressing reception desk enquiries and various other roles. 

“We feel we have no other choice than this course of action – we feel we’ve been backed into a corner,” Keane said in relation to the potential industrial action. 

We want more movement [on pay]. It feels like we’ve been left behind… that the support staff are being left behind.  

He said workers weren’t looking for something new but a pay deal that had been promised to them and that the HSE and government had “reneged on the payment”.

Jackie Cooke, CSSD Technician

Jackie Cooke (57) is a Central Sterile Services Department (CSSD) worker at Tallaght Hospital. 

Her job (and the 25 or so other workers at the hospital) is to clean and sterilise all of the medical equipment used at the theatre, outpatient and clinic areas. 

“We sterilise and inspect, package and disinfect all the reusable instruments,” she said. 

Basically we’re the people behind the scenes that are never taken into account. When people come into hospitals they don’t realise the process of having to sterilize every instrument used by the surgeons. 

Cooke said that she and her fellow workers had been promised the pay increases for a number of years but that they have failed to materialise.

“I’d like [the HSE and the Department of Health] to recognise us first and foremost and give use some respect,” she said.

“We haven’t stepped outside the public sector agreement, we’ve stood fast on this, but it’s like we don’t exist,” she said.

Government response

Despite the strike being called off, a large number of patients will have had appointments cancelled today.

The HSE yesterday welcomed to deferral of the strike action and said it would endeavour to reinstate services and appointments in so far as possible today.

Talks will kick off later this morning at the WRC aimed at resolving the dispute.

Speaking yesterday, Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe said there are a wide variety of competing claims being “pressed by the broad union movement” in relation to the future of public pay in the country.    

When asked if workers will be penalised for breaking the public service stability agreement he said that experience had taught him that in the day before a strike “if I begin to talk about the additional penalties that will be coming in it can have an effect on what we need to do to avoid the strike happening in the first place”.

We will do what we can across today to deal with this issue but we have to ensure that anything that can be done recognises that we have an agreement in place that I am determined to protect.

Reacting to Donohoe’s comments, Siptu’s Paul Bell told Sean O’Rourke that “if any penalties are taken against our members who are working within the public service agreement we reserve the right to escalate this dispute”.

- With reporting from Hayley Halpin  

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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