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Paul Murphy: The government's treatment of medical scientists on pay has been shameful

As medical scientists’ industrial action escalates, the TD says it’s time for pay parity for these frontline workers.

Paul Murphy

Updated May 24th 2022, 9:50 AM

21 YEARS IS is a long time to wait for your pay parity award to be implemented. But that is what has happened to members of the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association (MLSA).

The MLSA’s 2,100 members carry out the same work as other scientist colleagues in HSE and voluntary hospital laboratories, but they are paid on average 8% less.

This anomaly seemed set to be resolved way back in 2001, when pay parity with clinical biochemists was awarded following an expert group. The findings in the report were accepted by the HSE, but were somehow ‘lost’ in the 2002 benchmarking process.

Also central to the current dispute is a major shortage of medical scientists across the public health service due to lesser pay and conditions, insufficient third level places, poor career structure and limited promotion opportunities. Up to 20% of medical scientists posts are vacant.

Frustration

Medical scientists are the hidden heroes of the health service. They are the people who process test samples for Covid, who do blood tests, test urine and stool samples, and they have been under intense pressure during the Covid crisis.

But they are extremely frustrated by the refusal to implement pay parity, and burn-out of medical scientists is common because of a severe recruitment and retention problem which has been ignored by the HSE for years.

Exasperated at being ignored, last November, MLSA members voted 98% for industrial action in pursuit of their pay claim and to demand recruitment for vacant posts. It’s the first time since 1969 they’ve taken industrial action.

The union planned strike action for late March, but deferred for talks at the Public Sector Agreement Group. Once again, satisfactory progress was not achieved and industrial action began last week, with a two-day strike this week and three days planned next week.

One of the frustrating issues for MLSA members is that the HSE told them that pay parity is a decision for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER). But DPER has not engaged meaningfully with the MLSA. For MLSA members, it feels like the Government, the HSE, the Department of Health and DPER are all hiding behind one other. This is shameful treatment of frontline health workers.

Cost of living

While this is a pay parity claim, it also reminds us that all workers urgently need pay increases. Inflation has reached 7% and is set to go higher. It has reached 9% in Britain. Workers need increases at least equal to the rate of inflation to protect their real incomes.

Because of the long-running pay parity issue, the MLSA is the first large group of workers to strike this year, but it’s likely that many workers will follow as they struggle to protect incomes.

The MLSA has made every effort to avoid disruption to patients and fellow healthcare workers, but has been left with no alternative by the Government.

Inevitably, there has been disruption and more than 10,000 outpatient appointments were canceled on the first day of strike action last Wednesday. There were significant impacts on Emergency Departments, the number of patients on trolleys and on the GP service.

Piling this sort of pressure onto an already under-resourced public health system is entirely the fault of the Government.

Their contemptuous attitude to the MLSA is consistent with its disregard for a health system that has a record 898,000 people on National Treatment Payment Fund waiting lists. This is more than 50% higher than when the Sláintecare report, which promised the end of long waiting lists, was published five years ago this month.

PBP motion

It’s fortunate that PBP was scheduled to have Private Members’ Business time in the Dáil this week, and we have taken the opportunity to put forward a motion in support of the MLSA.

This means there will be a two-hour debate on Wednesday morning, giving the opposition an opportunity to pressurise the Government to meet the demands of the MLSA.

In addition, the motion will call on the Government to rebuild the testing capacity within the public health system and to end the outsourcing of testing to the private sector.

In 2006, the MLSA warned against the Government decision to outsource to the United States. They highlighted the different testing and screening protocols and the disconnect between the outsourced screening programme and the clinical services in Ireland for women subsequently diagnosed with cervical cancer.

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At the time, the MLSA also expressed deep concern about the loss of the skills to provide the service. Unfortunately, their warnings went unheeded.

MLSA members were on the picket lines in large numbers at hospitals last Wednesday. I went to the picket line at Tallaght Hospital to offer my solidarity and I was struck by the enormous public support for their action.

I believe that support will stay firmly with the MLSA and I urge everyone to put pressure on the Government to agree to their demands.

Paul Murphy is a People Before Profit TD for Dublin South West, a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise Trade and Employment, and the party’s spokesperson on Workers’ Rights.

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