Workers employed by Section 39 organisations pictured taking strike action in February 2020 in a dispute over pay restoration. Sam Boal

Why are 5,000 community and voluntary health workers taking indefinite strike action tomorrow?

The industrial action is backed by several unions.

UP TO 5,000 workers employed across 18 community and voluntary sector agencies are set to go on indefinite strike tomorrow.

Fórsa, SIPTU and Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) members have called on the Government to come to the negotiating table and “end the pay inequality” that has led to the planned strike action.

The workers are employed by agencies which get their funding from the HSE and other State bodies.

While last-minute talks are taking place this afternoon at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), unions are currently still intending to carry out the industrial action if negotiations fail.  

Why is the strike happening?

Workers voted to take industrial action following a breakdown of WRC talks in July.

It follows years of pay disparity between workers employed directly by the State and their counterparts working in Section 39 (health and disability services), Section 56 (services to children) and Section 10 (homeless services) community services. 

While these agencies are largely State-funded, workers employed in the community and voluntary sector are on different terms and conditions than their HSE counterparts.

The pay differential is more than 10% according to unions.

Because of that pay gap, unions such as Fórsa have carried out research which they say has shown that workers are leaving their jobs to take better-paid employment elsewhere, often in the HSE.

Fórsa spokesperson Niall Shanahan said that is partly why the government agreed to “fully man these services” and prevent the flow of people “handing in their notice to go work for the HSE or leaving the community and voluntary sector altogether”. 

Martha Buckley, a healthcare assistant, caring for older people, is among those who will be taking to the picket line tomorrow as things stand. 

“We can’t retain staff on the wages we are being paid. It’s like a revolving door, we’re losing people every day to the HSE. The government needs to step up really and find the funding that’s need settle this strike.”

Overall, unions put the turnover of staff in the sector at around 30% per year. 

They are demanding that a sustainable pay model is found to stabilise employment and services in the sector.

Who will be on strike?

Workers in the following organisations will take indefinite strike action from Tuesday 17 October:

  • Ardeen Cheshire Ireland
  • Ability West
  • Cheshire Ireland
  • Cheshire Dublin
  • Cheshire Home Newcastle West
  • Cobh Hospital
  • Daughters Of Charity Child and Family Service
  • DePaul Ireland
  • Don Bosco Care
  • Enable Ireland (nationwide, including Cork, Tralee, East Coast and Midwest regions)
  • Family Resource Centres
  • Irish Wheelchair Association
  • Trinity Community Care CLG
  • Kerry Parents and Friends
  • St. Catherines Association Ltd
  • St. Josephs Foundation
  • St. Luke’s Nursing Home
  • Trinity Community Care CLG
  • Western Care Association

What will it mean for services?

Ahead of the action, workers and unions have warned of the practical impact of the strike and what it will mean for services.

It will have the effect of “shutting down” day services at the 18 sites, Shanahan outlined to The Journal.

However, unions have arranged “derogations with employers” across the 18 facilities to ensure there is some level of cover for the service. 

“If there are people with very high levels of need, then they will continue to receive that care,” Shanahan said. 

This also demonstrates the “ongoing” nature of the work involved, increasing the risk of burnout in the sector according to Shanahan.

“For the most part it will shut down operations altogether. Indefinite strike action in this sector is most unusual and there are in or around 5,000 workers altogether, across 18 sites withdrawing their labour indefinitely.”

He added: “Members are prepared to take this indefinite industrial action which reflects the level of frustration they feel over their terms and conditions.”

This sentiment can be found in different experiences of staff collected by the unions for a press statement they issued on Friday evening.

At St Joseph’s Foundation in Cork, a member of the INMO explained that the disparity in pay has “very real consequences”, causing high staff turnover in particular.

“Nurses, social care and care staff are choosing to leave every day to access better pay and conditions in Section 38 and acute hospital settings, a decision which is difficult to argue against,” the worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

“The impact of this staff retention crisis is far reaching. Staff shortages mean that we constantly work under pressure, we cover extra shifts to bridge the deficit, and burnout amongst staff is high.

“Reliance on agency staff who may not always be familiar with the needs of our service users can lead to inefficiencies in the delivery and consistency of care,” they said.

Ellie, a member of Fórsa trade union, commented: “Over the two years I’ve been working at Enable Ireland I have directly seen what the pay disparity has caused. Workers who are struggling to pay their mortgages are suffering, they’re burning out because the retention and recruitment crisis is so acute. There are very vulnerable children suffering as a result.”

She added: “Give these employees the respect and equality they deserve. We’re haemorrhaging people, it needs to stop. If it continues the services will go into freefall. We don’t want that to happen. We love the work that we do,” she said. 

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