Care workers are essential in our society but they still face austerity implemented, and not been reversed, from the 2008 financial crisis. Bernard Mulvany looks at the history of this ongoing scandal and argues that the unions need to take meaningful strike action to force an unwilling government to restore pay in the sector.
The Irish state has consistently used economic crises to undermine the pay and conditions of workers, particularly those who work in our public healthcare sector. In 2008, using the global financial crisis as the basis for austerity, the government of the day Fianna Fáil, propped up by the Green Party, began imposing some of the harshest austerity in the history of the state.
In 2011, Fine Gael and Labour swept into power on the back of peoples’ anger at that austerity. Rather than keeping their promise of “Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way”, it quite quickly became clear it was to be Frankfurt’s way, all the way.
What came next was some of the harshest austerity ever faced by Irish workers, especially our Section 39 workers. These are the workers who provide some of the most important health care needs in Irish society.
Governments across the developed world have spent the past four decades finding ways of outsourcing the delivery of public services. In the process, two-tiered service delivery and workforces have been created and despite the rhetoric of improved efficiency and economy, the reality is one of lower service quality and attacks on workers’ pay and conditions.
While these impacts are all too evident in healthcare in Ireland, there is a slightly different history where the Irish state has always relied upon community and voluntary organisations to provide some health and social care services.
In the Irish state there are two types of health organisations. One is called Section 38, the other is Section 39. Section 38 organisations are more or less 100% funded by the state to do key work. Section 39 organisations are partly funded by the state and must raise additional funds themselves.
There is actually only 40 Section 38 organisations (mainly hospitals) with huge reserves of land, property and other assets, and they receive billions from the tax payer. On the flip side there are over 2,000 Section 39 organisations, all community and voluntary entities requiring additional revenue streams to make ends meet.
Another dark aspect of this two-tiered system is that most of the Section 38 organisations are under church patronage. Even though they have “independent” boards their ethos is entrenched in the Catholic faith and are under control of the Catholic Church, showing us once again the willingness of the Irish state to enrich an already ultra-rich organisation.
Accordingly, what we have are two groups of workers. Both groups provide vital healthcare, yet one group, the Section 38 workers, have contracts that provide them with all manner of protections and entitlements – entitlements that every worker should have, especially when they provide work that is essential in a developed society.
Section 39 workers, while providing the same vital care and compassion, are effectively independent contractors with all the entitlements of someone who is self-employed, meaning very little!
They are prone to flexible working conditions, including reduced hours, and a lot of these workers are not in receipt of holiday pay or travel expenses as they go from patient to patient in the community.
Their wages are on average 15% less than their Section 38 counterparts. This has led to a huge issue around attracting workers and the retention of skilled healthcare staff. This has the biggest impact on those who need the services the most. Our elderly, our disabled and those who face serious long term illnesses find themselves without vital supports and interventions due to the fact that staffing levels are so low.
It has been levelled at the government by the SIPTU health divisional organiser that they employ a strategy of “dodge, delay, and deny” when it comes to workers’ pay and conditions.
Anyone with healthcare needs, especially those who rely on others for their personal care, will attest to this staffing crisis. Staff are just not attracted to the sector – and why would they be? We are in a cost of living crisis, yet these Section 39 workers are on the same rates of pay as they were in 2008. Many workers you talk to say they are barely surviving, and in many cases they aren’t. They are reliant on additional supports and part-time work to make up their wages.
The other glaring failing is around people with disabilities not being able to live independently. We have recently seen high profile stories in our media of young adults confined to care homes even though they have been granted independent care packages. This is due to the fact these packages force those in receipt of them to source their care from private operators who cannot find the staff to meet the demand. This brings us back to the Section 39 workers.
A year ago, Section 39 workers were balloted to take industrial action to force government to address the pay issue. After three days of action all sides agreed to enter talks in the WRC, but after a year these broke down due to the refusal from government to meet the pay demands – demands from those workers who have not had increases since 2008.
Bailout For Care
When the 2008 financial crisis hit and the Irish taxpayer had to bail out the bankers, salary caps were put in place. These caps are by no means an underpayment: €500k if you’re a banker, not to mention expenses and other benefits. However, now the Government is actively looking to have these salary caps removed to attract “the very best people”.
Meanwhile, our Section 39 workers who are providing vital care still cannot get a living wage. They are still on salaries from 2008. What this shows us is that government parties still look at healthcare as a commodity. Commodities that you need to pay as little as possible, even when those workers are providing the most important services and supports in our society.
Essential Workers – Need to Strike
The Irish state needs to reverse the decision it made in 2008 and bring back those workers into our public health care system. They need to be paid a decent wage with entitlements that all public sector workers should be in receipt of, especially as these people are dedicating their working lives to bettering the lives of their fellow citizens. In other words they need pay restoration.
Fórsa, INMO and SIPTU are the unions that represent Section 39 workers. The unions have employed a strategy of lobbying government and calling ad hoc, small scale, limited strikes in pursuit of pay restoration. However, it is clear the Minister, Department for Health and the HSE are not going to restore pay levels willingly.
Over the summer, talks facilitated by the Workplace Relations Commission broke down with the unions calling a 5% pay offer “derisory”, as it does not even keep up with inflation, never mind addressing the pay backlog from 2008 onwards.
In response, from 4th September, SIPTU are balloting up to 5,000 of their members who work for Section 39 organisations. It is vital, firstly, that there is strong vote in favour of action; and secondly, that the SIPTU leadership call these strikes. Furthermore, other unions in the sector need to follow this lead and ballot their members.
Co-ordinated, unified, strike action across the sector can drag the government and employers back to the negotiating table and win pay restoration. Such action also provides an opportunity for recruitment to the unions and the strengthening of union organisation at a local level.
It is only through such strike action, that we can force the government into once again making a career in public health an attractive career. We can meet the demand that is in our community and we can provide our citizens with the dignity they deserve as they become increasingly reliant on others for their independence and care.
Public health and social care should be for the people and not a commodity for profit.