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Labour Party

Opinion Care and community workers fill the gaps left by the State - they need a pay rise

We need to improve working conditions and pay for carers and community workers, writes Labour’s Duncan Smith.

THEY PROVIDE SOME  of our most essential frontline services, caring for the vulnerable and maintaining our communities. Despite this, tens of thousands of workers employed in community, voluntary, and section 39 organisations are in a dire situation.

Squeezed by the runaway cost of living crisis and stuck on the same rate of pay since 2008, they have no way of securing a pay rise – apart from taking strike action. Labour supports their actions.

Left with no other option, they took to picket lines this year in counties Cork, Kerry, Mayo, Galway, Donegal Waterford, and Dublin. I stood on picket lines from Charleville to Clontarf and the demands of these workers are simple – a pay rise for the first time in 14 years; safeguarding the vital services they provide and the return of the pay link which many of these workers had with the public service prior to 2008.

Established bodies

Some of the hundreds of organisations are well known: the Irish Wheelchair Association, the Rehab Group, Enable Ireland, St. Joseph’s Foundation, while others work in locally based organisations such as Ability West and Western Care which have evolved to meet the needs of their immediate community.

They provide a wide variety of services including personal care, crisis intervention, meals on wheels, youth clubs and many other essential schemes. What unites this diverse group of workers is that they fill the gaps left by the State. They are often a lifeline for the most marginalised people in our society.

Care workers in Section 39 and similar organisations provide an immeasurable contribution to society, filling the gaps left by the State, providing a range of vital health and personal social services.

The wheels of care in this State could not turn without them. It’s time that they were treated fairly by this government. The Labour Party is demanding that the Government stops dodging its responsibility and gives these essential frontline workers the equal pay they so deserve.

Washing their hands

The Government has consistently refused to accept any responsibility for pay and conditions of employment in these organisations, claiming that the State is not the employer.

This has resulted in workers in the community sector and Section 39 organisations having the worst of both worlds, many were treated as public servants when the Government reduced their pay in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, but when it comes to pay increases the Government pulls down the corporate veil and refuses to take any responsibility for pay and conditions.

Organisations in the sector are also facing a staff retention crisis due to the uncompetitive nature of pay and their sub-standard conditions of employment. Government is failing to grasp the link between its chronic underfunding of the wages of workers in these organisations and the failure to meet recruitment targets in, for example, disability services.

These are the same organisations struggling to attract enough qualified and experienced staff in a very tight labour market. Why? Because they can get better-paid work elsewhere.

The failure to fund the services adequately has led directly to shortfalls in services and growing waiting lists. It also leaves our members feeling undervalued and not recognised by our Government for the invaluable work they do.

What can be done?

The solution to this situation is quite simple. The Government must sit down with the unions which represent these workers and agree a way forward which ensures they receive the pay increases they deserve and the services they provide are protected. Despite numerous requests this is something the Government has refused to do.

This refusal to engage with workers’ representatives is all the more disappointing in the context of an EU directive which is due to be transposed later this year.

The draft directive stipulates that where countries have collective bargaining coverage below 70%, they must put in place a framework for the enablement of collective bargaining to take place. Collective bargaining coverage in Ireland is just over 30 per cent.

Last week, workers were given a real boost by the work of the High-Level group on Collective Bargaining and its recommendations. Labour wants to see the recommendations of this landmark report implemented in full and without any unnecessary delay.

If the Government is serious about living up obligations to improve collective bargaining coverage it should provide a mechanism to the community, care and voluntary sector immediately. Until this is done the Valuing Care, Valuing Community campaign will be forced to expand and escalate its actions with the full support of workers who have said ‘enough is enough’.

Change can only come by the Government agreeing to increase funding to their organisations which is what Labour will demand in our Private Members Motion this morning. We need support from the entire Opposition.

We need the Government to do as it did prior to 2008 which was to provide increases in funding to most Section 39 care and community organisations at a level which allowed them to then pay the wage increases agreed upon as part of national public service pay agreements.

Nothing less will do.

Duncan Smith is a Labour TD and spokesperson on Health and Disability.

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