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'It's like no one cares': School secretaries to be balloted for industrial action this autumn

Some secretaries don’t have regular hours, don’t get paid for the Christmas or summer breaks, while others aren’t entitled to sick pay or a pension.

Image: Shutterstock/smolaw

SCHOOL SECRETARIES ARE to be balloted this autumn on whether to take industrial action over inequalities and uncertain employment, after a number of secretaries expressed disappointment at the Minister for Education’s recent Dáil statement. 

Trade union Fórsa are aiming to make all school secretaries public servants in order to give them certainty in relation to their pay, their hours and future employment. After recent talks with the government, they’re preparing to ballot school secretaries for industrial action later this year.

The role of a school secretary is often a precarious position: the vast majority of school secretaries are paid through an ancillary grant given to schools, which is based on the number of students enrolled in the school.

Those secretary’s hours per year are often based on what the school can afford to pay from that grant, meaning they’re not guaranteed a set number of hours, days, or weeks of work from year-to-year.

Some secretaries don’t get paid for Christmas and summer breaks and have to sign up for the dole during that time, while others aren’t entitled to sick leave.

The Minister for Education has accepted on the floor of the Dáil that there’s an issue in relation to inequalities in school secretaries’ pay.

A union delegation met with Department officials on 27 May. Following this, the Department said that it cannot engage in negotiations until a survey to establish the cost of the claim is carried out; as the school term has ended, this cannot be carried out until September, meaning it’s unlikely that money will be set aside in the next Budget to allow for school secretaries to be made employees of the State.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Department of Education said that it must “establish the full current cost of the trade union’s claim, including current pay rates and hours worked. However, the Department is not the employer and does not currently hold that information.”

Accordingly, the Department will carry out a survey on the number of secretaries and caretakers working in schools whose salaries are funded from State grants. Previous costings were, as stated at the recent Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills hearing, based on a survey of schools conducted in 2009.
A new survey is necessary given the Department does not hold the information as it is not the employer of the staff, the previous survey is 10 years old and the 2015 Arbitration Agreement has been implemented in the meantime.
Given the scale of the task and the fact that schools are entering the summer holiday period, the Department does not expect to have analysis from the survey available until September/October at the earliest.

“Fórsa’s claim is not being ruled out, and will be fully considered once the current costings have been determined on completion of the survey. The Department is fully open to having further dialogue with Fórsa once this work has been undertaken.”

As things stand, school secretaries around the country will be balloted from the end of August with the ballot to close on 6 September, with an aim to hold a rally or an event of public support on 7 September.

An industrial action, expected to be a work-stoppage, is planned for the following week.

ETB schools (second-level schools, further education colleges, and multi-faith community national schools) are State-regulated and so won’t be included.

O’Connor told TheJournal.ie:

If the Department isn’t willing to recognise secretaries as their employees, they won’t do public work and will not comply with Department systems. If they’re plugged in to the Department’s systems, then we’ll unplug them.

Earlier this month, school secretaries expressed disappointment at Minister for Education Joe McHugh’s response to a question from Fianna Fáil TD and former MEP candidate Brendan Smith, who asked what the government’s plan was to fix inequalities between school secretaries across the country.

In outlining the government’s plans, McHugh said that a moratorium on secretaries had recently been “relaxed”, meaning schools can hire up to a maximum of two per school. He said that schools receive grants from the state to pay its secretaries:

It is a matter for each individual school to decide how best to apply the grant funding to suit its particular needs. Where a school uses the grant funding for caretaking or secretarial purposes, any staff taken on to support those functions are employees of individual schools. Specific responsibility for the pay and conditions rests with the school.

School secretaries have reacted with disappointment to his response, saying that it felt like the government is ignoring the issue:

“It’s like no one cares,” one secretary said in correspondence sent to TheJournal.ie. “I’m really feeling like that lately in the job. I’m in my mid-40s and I’m questioning should I now look at a public job so at least I can get pension rights. It’s such a shame since I love my job, and I’m good at it.”

Another said: “Same old, same old… I don’t really think we are getting anywhere as no matter who or what raises questions they trot out the same old response.”

Other responses from secretaries were:

One of our teachers, [who is the] same age as myself, is taking early retirement this year because it makes more financial sense for her to do so. Some of the other teachers were saying how she will probably be back subbing next year and that the pay for subbing is amazing. When I am finally forced to retire it will be with a wave… [It's] just so, so unfair!
I find that response from the Minister an insult. It feels like Oliver Twist. Yes master, no master, aren’t we so lucky to be going from €8.65 to €13 an hour. I’d like to see him live on €13 an hour with no pension, bonus, summer pay. It really is the same old story. I wonder will it ever change.

Trade union Fórsa launched a campaign earlier this year in an attempt to make the role of a school secretary more secure by achieving equal pay, definite work terms, and more regular hours.

“In the most extreme cases we’ve encountered,” Fórsa’s Joe O’Connor said, “school secretaries earning as little as €12,700, with no entitlement to benefits such as sick pay or pension rights.”

Currently, secretaries are on a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019 for staff and that a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 be phased in over that period. This arbitration agreement covers the period up to 31 December 2019, and is part of the public pay sector package put in place to undo Fempi measures, or cost-cutting measures specifically for public sector workers, which were introduced during the recession.  

Joe McHugh told the Dáil that these measures were designed to benefit the lowest-paid employees: “For example, a secretary or caretaker who was paid the then minimum wage of €8.65 per hour in 2015 prior to the arbitration has from 1 January 2019, been paid €13 per hour which is a 50% increase in that individual’s hourly pay.”

Previous government estimations indicate that paying secretaries directly from the Department of Education would cost €21.868 million extra a year, once all staff hit the top of the scale.

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