Community and voluntary sector agency health workers announce indefinite strike

Owen Reidy, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, accused the Government of failing to address the issue of pay (Niall Carson/PA)
Owen Reidy, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, accused the Government of failing to address the issue of pay (Niall Carson/PA)

Health workers employed by state-funded community and voluntary sector agencies have announced plans for an indefinite strike.

The action commencing on October 17 is related to a pay dispute over different rates paid to the workers compared with counterparts employed directly by the state. Union representatives say the disparity is in excess of 10% for many workers.

The decision comes after unions Forsa, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (Inmo) and Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (Siptu) balloted their members. The three unions said ballot returns demonstrated an “overwhelming support” for industrial action, up to and including strikes.

The ballots took place following the breakdown of pay talks at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in July.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) said the strike action will involve thousands of health and community workers employed in community and voluntary sector agencies that are funded by the HSE or other state agencies.

Ictu said the action will involve workers in a variety of grades and in multiple locations. The union said the strike would bring services to a halt.

Organisations such as Enable Ireland, the Irish Wheelchair Association and DePaul Ireland will be affected.

Ictu general secretary Owen Reidy accused the Government of a failure to address a “serious and growing problem” on how the agencies are funded and difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff.

“Workers in the sector now have chosen to take action because the state, as the chief funding body for these services, has failed to grasp the seriousness of the staffing crisis in this sector,” he said.

Ashley Connolly, an official with Forsa, added: “This is the action of last resort, and it has been a difficult decision for these workers, but they’ve been left with no more options.

“The Government has been dragging its feet on the issue for years, while making conciliatory noises to health workers who urgently need pay improvements. Their colleagues are walking out the door for better terms elsewhere, and waiting lists for the services these agencies offer continue to grow as a result.

“There’s a yawning pay gap of more than 10%. Services cannot be sustained as long as that continues.”

Siptu health division official Kevin Figgis said the decision demonstrated the “frustration” of its members over the “dysfunctional way” parts of the community healthcare system is funded.

“Our members involved in this dispute provide essential health services on behalf of the state,” he said.

“Should voluntary providers continue to have recruitment and retention issues, and are no longer able to provide these services, there will be an obligation on the HSE to step in and provide them directly.

“These services will need to be appropriately funded. Pay parity with the public service is necessary to ensure the provision of vital public services to vulnerable people in our communities. It’s an acknowledged fact that the current funding model is unsustainable and will need to be resolved to secure the future of these services.”

Inmo official Albert Murphy added: “Nurses in the community and voluntary sector provide essential services to some of the most vulnerable people in society. They have not been afforded the same level of pay increases as their colleagues in the HSE, which is exacerbating a recruitment and retention crisis in the sector.

“Nurses in the sector are now facing into another winter with rising household costs, yet their salaries remain stagnant.

“The Government cannot continue to bury its head in the sand over the very real issues at the heart of this dispute. It’s hard for our members to take that while the exchequer has enjoyed record returns, and the state continues to deny vital pay improvements to thousands of workers in this vital health sector.”

In response, the Department of Health said it recognised the important role the workers have in providing services to people with disabilities, vulnerable children and older people.

“Government have a clear interest to ensure the stability and sustainability of services for the benefit of those who rely on these essential services and the workers who are committed to providing quality services,” it stated.

It said the department and other state agencies had made an offer to the unions of a 5% pay increase effective from November 2023, with 3% backdated to April. The department said that offer was in line with those accepted by community and voluntary staff in other sectors.

“This combined offer was not accepted by trade union representatives, and it is disappointing that their members were not afforded the opportunity to vote on whether they wished to accept the 5% increase in pay funding,” it added.

The statement went on to highlight that the community and voluntary sector agencies are privately owned and operated, with employee terms and conditions not set by the state.

“The Government is not the employer for any of these staff,” it added.

On the prospect of strike actions, the statement added: “Any industrial action will impact negatively on the people who use their services, and the Department of Health would urge all parties to work on resolving any disputes through the appropriate forums, in the interests of users of these services.

“As Government reflects on the implications of today’s union announcement, relevant agencies have been asked to engage in contingency planning with the relevant employer organisations so that any impact on those who depend on these essential services can be managed to the greatest extent possible.

“Government remains committed to working with the unions to resolve these matters.”