SIPTU PAC Division Organiser Adrian Kane.

Opinion: After 14 years without a pay rise workers are standing up for justice

They provide some of our most vital services, caring for the vulnerable and maintaining our communities. Despite this thousands of workers employed in community and section 39 organisations have be left in the dire situation of being on the same rate of pay since 2008, and left with no way of securing a rise – apart from taking the campaign of industrial action they have now embarked on.

Left with no alternative, these workers will take to picket lines in counties Cork, Kerry, Mayo, Galway and Donegal for three days of targeted strike action from 21 to 23 September. This follows two days of strike action in July in Dublin, Waterford, Galway and Donegal.

The demands of their Valuing Care, Valuing Community campaign are simple: a pay rise for the first time in 14 years; safeguarding the vital services they provide and the return of the pay link which many of these workers had with the public service prior to 2008.

Some of the hundreds of organisations they work for are well known: the Irish Wheelchair Association, EmployAbility Services, the Rehab Group, Enable Ireland, St Joseph’s Foundation, while others work in locally based organisations such as Ability West and Western Care which have evolved to meet the needs of their immediate community. They provide a wide variety of services including personal care, crisis intervention, meals on wheels, youth clubs and many other essential schemes.

What unites this diverse group of workers is that they fill the gaps left by the State. They are often a lifeline for the most marginalised people in our society.

The community sector suffered the largest cuts of any sector in the aftermath of the economic collapse. From 2008 to 2014 there was an average resource cut of 40%, including cuts in support staff of nearly a third.

Their colleagues in Section 39 organisations while working in largely government funded services, have none of the protections of public servants, although many are in identical roles. They also have seen their wages massively decline in real terms without being offered any avenue to negotiate improvements. These workers cannot now be left behind by our Government and their dedication left unnoticed.

Up until 2008 union members employed in community and Section 39 organisations received pay increases in line with national wage agreements under Social Partnership. Public sector workers’ pay continues to be determined through public sector pay agreements negotiated between the Public Service Committee of the ICTU and Government.

In the private sector, unionised workers’ pay is determined through enterprise-level negotiated collective bargaining arrangements. Reliant on largely stagnant government funding, employees of community sector and Section 39 organisations have not had any pay increase since 2008 (some have had pay restored which had previously been cut).

The Government has consistently refused to accept any responsibility for pay and conditions of employment in these organisations, claiming that the state is not the employer. This has resulted in workers in the community sector and Section 39 organisations having the worst of both worlds, many were treated as public servants when the Government reduced their pay in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, but when it comes to pay increases, the Government pulls down the corporate veil and refuses to take any responsibility for pay and conditions.

Organisations in the sector are also facing a staff retention crisis due to the uncompetitive nature of pay and their sub-standard conditions of employment.

Government is failing to grasp the link between its chronic underfunding of the wages of workers in these organisations and the failure to meet recruitment targets in, for example, disability services.

These are the same organisations struggling to attract enough qualified and experienced staff in a very tight labour market. Why? Because they can get better paid work elsewhere. The failure to fund the services adequately has led directly to shortfalls in services and growing waiting lists. It also leaves our members feeling undervalued and not recognised by our Government for the invaluable work they do.

The solution to this situation is quite simple. The Government must sit down with the unions which represent these workers and agree a way forward which ensures they receive the pay increases they deserve and the services they provide are protected.

Despite numerous requests, this is something the Government has refused to do. This refusal to engage with workers’ representatives is all the more disappointing in the context of an EU directive which is due to be transposed in October.

The draft directive stipulates that where countries have collective bargaining coverage below 70%, they must put in place a framework for the enablement of collective bargaining to take place. Collective bargaining coverage in Ireland is just over 30 per cent. If the Government is serious about living up to this directive it should provide collectively bargaining to the community and Section 39 sector immediately.

Until this is done the Valuing Care, Valuing Community campaign will be forced to expand and escalate its actions with the full support of workers who have said ‘enough is enough’.

The Valuing Care, Valuing Community campaign is supported by the ICTU, SIPTU, Fórsa and the INMO.