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School secretaries to strike outside Department of Public Expenditure over lack of better pay offers

Fórsa has said that civil servants have claimed the Tánaiste’s commitment to standard pay does not change WRC talks.

Image: Leah Farrell

SCHOOL SECRETARIES ARE to stage a one-day strike in Dublin this month over the Government’s failure to make an official offer to regularise pay and conditions for secretaries despite a commitment the Tánaiste gave to the Dáil.

Trade union Fórsa have told The Journal that they have been inundated with queries from school-secretary members to speed up the talks process, and hoped that the issue wasn’t being used as a “political football”.

The union said it has been suggested to them that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are blocking the implementation of the Tánaiste’s commitment last year to standardise pay and conditions of school secretaries.

Fórsa said pickets would be placed at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and Department of Finance on Wednesday 15 September.

Since 2018, a campaign has ramped up to regulate the work of school secretaries, some of whom don’t have regular work hours and aren’t entitled to holidays, sick pay, or a pension.

Though some school secretaries are paid directly from the Department of Education, there are over 3,000 school secretaries who are paid from a grant given to schools to pay for a range of costs, meaning their hours could be cut depending on this figure.

Some school secretaries have told The Journal that they have had to sign on during the summer and Christmas holidays, and can face difficulties in paying mortgages or renting. This is despite doing duties on behalf of the Department of Education, such as processing teacher’s pay.

After a number of strike actions being announced last year, talks began at the Workplace Relations Commission between the Department of Education and trade union Fórsa.

One of the preliminary agreements to come out of those talks was to have the conditions of employment of 1,000 secretaries “regularised”. 

In a statement to The Journal, the Department of Education said is aware of the “vitally important role” played by school secretaries in the running of schools.

In recognition of this role, special Covid-19 working arrangements were put in place and the Employee Assistance Service was extended to grant funded staff.

The Department also previously fully implemented and funded the 2015 recommendations of an independent arbitrator for a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019 and that a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 be phased in over that period.

Varadkar’s commitment to school secretaries

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dáil last autumn that the Government that the work school secretaries do is “as important” as teachers, SNAs and school principals.

Trade union Fórsa, representing school secretaries, said at the time that the statement was “something of a breakthrough moment in a decades long inequality”.

Despite this statement, a year later there has been little to no progress on regulating the pay and conditions of school secretaries.

Fórsa’s Andy Pike told The Journal that though the Government had promised to put school secretaries on a proper pay scale, with prospective pensions but no retrospective pensions, the only offer that has been made is an increase of 50 cents an hour for secretaries and no increase for caretakers. The union called this “derisory” at the time. 

Pike said it had been told by civil servants that despite the Tánaiste’s comments, none of the claim by the Government has been conceded, and it is “not obliged to regulate school secretaries’ pay” as a result.

“What we have learned is that the civil service using the process [the Workplace Relations Commission] to delay matters in the hope resolve of school secretaries is weakened, and in the hope that the issue goes away.”

Pike also said that he hopes the school secretaries issue is not being used “as a political football”, as Fine Gael leader Varadkar made the commitment to improve pay and conditions for school secretaries, but Fianna Fáil’s Norma Foley is Education Minister, and Michael McGrath is Minsiter for Public Expenditure. 

Pike said the failure had left school secretaries and caretakers “bitterly disappointed” as they face into yet another school year of pay “discrimination”.

“School secretaries have again been let down by their employers and by the Government.

They had a reasonable expectation that a solution would be in place by now. They have campaigned and made their case, which has won broad public and political support.

The Department of Education said in a statement that the Fórsa trade union has tabled a follow-on claim and officials from the Department and school management bodies have been engaging with Fórsa on the issues.

“A process of engagement has taken place at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) and an understanding has been agreed on a pathway to progress the issues with a phased approach being taken to the development of proposals.

Good progress has been made however it is acknowledged that further engagement is needed. In that respect, a further WRC engagement on the 15th September has been offered but Fórsa have not so far agreed to attend.

“The Department regrets that industrial action is planned at a time when it, together with school employer parties, is actively seeking to engage with Fórsa in an effort to resolve the issue as part of an ongoing IR process under the auspices of the WRC.

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“Industrial action would impact on the day-to-day operation of schools at a time when so much effort has gone into ensuring they could open and stay open during the pandemic. The Department would appeal to school secretaries and to Fórsa to defer this planned action to allow further early and intensive discussions to take place.”

Pike said the 50 cent an hour increase would still leave the majority of school secretaries earning about €12,000 a year less than their colleagues directly employed by the Department of Education.

The proposals contained no movement on standardisation of leave, sick leave and other conditions of service. Neither did they address access to an occupational pension scheme in a similar way to directly-employed staff.

Fórsa is currently balloting school caretakers as they are also disadvantaged by the pay inequality. They will join the 15 September strike if the ballot result backs strike action.

In response to queries from The Journal about claims made by Fórsa, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said the queries should be directed to the Department of Education.

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