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Muiris O'Cearbhaill/The Journal
Section 39 workers

Health and community workers to strike 'indefinitely' from 17 October over staffing concerns

The unions said the sector is facing a “crisis” in staff recruitment and retention.

LAST UPDATE | 25 Sep 2023

UP TO 5,000 health and community workers, employed in community and voluntary sector agencies funded by the HSE and other state agencies, have voted to strike “indefinitely” on 17 October.

A number of unions representing the workers said that the sector is facing a “crisis” in staff recruitment and retention and is asking for equal pay and funding to save the sector.

In its ‘Pay Equality to Save Services’ campaign, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, Fórsa and Siptu said the sector is facing a “crisis” in staff recruitment and retention.

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

  • Ardeen Cheshire Ireland
  • Ability West
  • Cheshire Ireland
  • Cheshire Dublin
  • Cheshire Home Newcastle West
  • Co-action West Cork
  • 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
  • Kerry Parents and Friends
  • St. Catherines Association Ltd
  • St. Josephs Foundation
  • St. Lukes Nursing Home
  • Trinity Community Care CLG
  • Western Care Association

Recent research conducted by unions found that the retention and recruitment has become a “major challenge” in the sector which is paired with a continued lack of pay increases.

Speaking to the press today, ICTU General Secretary Owen Reidy said the decision for the indefinite strike action came as an “inevitable consequence of the failure of the Government to address a serious and growing problem with how the agencies are funded, and a recruitment and retention crisis in vital services”.

Reidy said there should be a “unambiguous and clear commitment” that equal pay be restored to the workers with “no ifs or buts”.

He added that a “very clear” roadmap to equality should be implemented and that ensuring that a situation like this does not arise again.

‘Equal’, not special treatment

A representative for the IMNO, who had to arrive at the press conference on late notice due to staffing issues, said “Section 39 workers” – voluntary, not-for-profit employees in healthcare – have “undergone the same same rigorous training and education as our counterparts in Section 38 (HSE workers)”.

“Yes, despite these similarities, there exists a glaring disparity in the way we are treated compared to those in Section 38, or HSE workers,” the representative said.

We work under the same condition, faced the same challenges and shoulder the same responsibility. So the question that begs to be asked is, why are we treated differently?”

The INMO believe the group of workers are not afforded the same recognition and benefits as those who work within the HSE and are asking to be treated with equality.

“We are not asking for special treatment. We are asking for equal treatment,” the spokeswoman added.

“Section 39″ agencies, who are funded under Section 39 of the Health Act, 2004, provide a range of residential and day services for people with disabilities, mental health, addiction, domestic and sexual violence services, and other supports, under service level agreements with the HSE.

IMG_9756 Union members and workers outside the Dáil today. Muiris O'Cearbhaill / The Journal Muiris O'Cearbhaill / The Journal / The Journal

Until 2008, workers in these agencies received pay increases under national wage agreements. At the onset of the financial crisis, they were subject to pay cuts in line with the same cuts applied to public sector pay.

Limited pay restoration measures were eventually won by unions in 2019 but pay in these agencies remains significantly behind, and no formal mechanism for collective pay bargaining exists for workers in the sector.

Reidy said the Union groups want to see a successor to current public service pay agreements and promises that future agreements will continue to apply equal pay for all.

Reidy said that there was an “urgency” to get a resolution and the issue cannot be solved with the provision of “three fifths of what you’re looking for”.

A time for a bandaid over the injury is long over.”

Helen Power, a Section 39 worker and a member of Siptu said that while she “loves” her job, she finds it “disrespectful” that the voluntary sector workers are not paid the on same terms as the public sector.

“I do the same work as the section 38 organisation – there’s no difference. My passion as a section 38 organisation,” Power told reporters today.

“I was here in 2018 for the restoration of pay, and I walked the streets for to get fairness for my work colleagues and fairness for what we deserve.

“I can clearly state categorically now, and anyone can document it, I won’t be going away until I get pay clarity restored,” she added.

Political response

Social Democrats TD Róisín Shorthall, who was present at the meeting, gave her support to the strikes on behalf of her party.

“I appreciate that you’re embarking on this course of action very reluctantly and it is about utter frustration. You’ve been making this case for several years and unfortunately the case has fallen on deaf ears,” Shorthall said.

Shorthall said given the increase on the number of people on waiting lists, she appreciates that the unions will continue to provide emergency cover in the Section 39 organisations.

In a statement this afternoon, the Labour Party’s spokesperson for health Duncan Smith said the ballot result should come as “no surprise” to the government as the workers are “at the absolute end of their tether”.

Smith said: “The blame for this lies firmly at the feet of this Government.”

“What’s needed now is progress and action to improve pay and conditions – for workers in the sector but also to future proof recruitment and retention of workers who care for us all,” he added.

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