The Minister for Housing and Local Government Darragh O’Brien has urged the two sides in the retained firefighters dispute to resume talks to build on what he described as the “substantial progress” previously made with regard to the provision of improved terms and conditions for the roughly 2,000 workers involved.
The firefighters, the majority of whom are members of Siptu, have been refusing to co-operate with drills and other routine duties on Tuesday, the first phase of action intended, they say, to secure the restoration of previous levels of pay and more structured rosters.
Currently, the workers, who must live and work close to stations and be available around the clock to answer a very high proportion of call-outs, earn on average between €18,000 and €45,000. They are free to take second jobs but say it is increasingly difficult to find employers will to afford them the necessary flexibility.
Recruitment and retention has been a challenge for the service, which is run by local authorities. Siptu argues that a significant number of current firefighters want to leave the service but feel that in the absence of available replacements, they cannot let their communities down.
As the first day of industrial action took place on Tuesday, Mr O’Brien said that he recognised the difficulties members of the service faced, many of which were identified in a report he commissioned. He suggested all sides support the implementation of its recommendations which included a shift towards pay being more rooted in a basic retainer and less reliant on call-outs, the number of which have declined over the past 20 years, and the establishment of rosters that allowed for proper time off.
Progress had been made, he said, on the “provision of a revised model of retained fire service delivery that would provide for both an effective service delivery, and a suitable work/life balance for retained firefighters, including structured time off and flexible work arrangements.
He said he accepted that no agreement had been reached in recent talks but requested that both sides engage again. The Local Government Management Association (LGMA) has said it is available for talks but said it was not in a position to make any offer on pay that breached the current national public sector agreement. Siptu says that without movement on pay, talks are pointless.
“The firefighters originally balloted for action in January then deferred it on the basis of an intervention which resulted in talks,” said the union’s Karan O Loughlin. “But those talks failed so the question is how do do restart them when the LGMA has not changed its position.
“This dispute has been six or seven years in the making,” she added. “Because of the type of job it is I think the LGMA believes people will just keep doing it but that’s that’s hugely disrespectful.”