Unions differ in response to HSE’s agreement to attend talks on voluntary health sector dispute

Fórsa says pay dispute needs to be brought ‘to a head’, but Siptu says shift in HSE position significant and welcome

Fórsa general secretary Kevin Callinan has said his union’s threat of renewed and extended strike action in parts of the voluntary health services sector over the coming weeks is a question of bringing a long-running pay dispute “to a head”.

However, another of the unions involved in the dispute, Siptu, described a commitment by the HSE to attend talks at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), delivered just hours before Wednesday’s statement by Fórsa, as “a new and significant development”.

Both unions represent workers providing services to clients with intellectual or physical disabilities in various children’s services on behalf of the HSE, the Department of Health and Tusla.

Having previously enjoyed parity with those directly employed public sector workers performing comparable roles, the unions argue that their members have not received pay increases in line with those awarded in the public sector in recent years because the organisations, many of which are entirely publicly funded, have not received the increased backing required to match them.


The result, they say, has been the evolution of a difference in pay rates of around 10 per cent which is leaving workers employed by the voluntary organisations at a disadvantage compared to their public sector counterparts and causing very significant numbers of them to abandon their jobs in favour of directly employed ones, something that is exacerbating already existing staff shortages.

Members of both unions engaged in industrial action last year, which was suspended after the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, suggested in the Dáil that the dispute should be resolved by the parties at the WRC.

The Department of Social Protection agreed to attend the WRC in relation to a related dispute involving organisations it funds and talks are scheduled for early next month but the HSE initially declined, apparently on the basis that it lacked the required mandate from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to make any engagement on its part meaningful.

On Wednesday morning, however, it informed both unions of a change in its position, and talks are now due to be scheduled for the coming weeks.

Despite this Fórsa said on Wednesday evening that it would ballot on strike action in the sector and cover the wages of those who participated. It accused the Government of “dragging its feet”, and said “neither the Government, Department of Health or the HSE have since taken any meaningful action to address the issue”.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio on Thursday, Mr Callinan did reference the expected WRC involvement but said “the employers are turning up there, the HSE and the Department of Health, without a clear indication from Government that this needs to be settled”.

Siptu, in contrast, welcomed the HSE move, but said it reserved the right to resume strike action if the engagement at the WRC did not yield a resolution to the dispute.

“We suspended our previous action in light of comments made by Minister Donnelly and Minister of State Anne Rabbitte regarding the possibility of a resolution being reached through the involvement of the WRC,” said the union’s health sector divisional organiser Kevin Figgis. “We were told on Wednesday that the HSE will engage in that process and we welcome that, but if those talks don’t produce a satisfactory outcome then we will absolutely be going back to our members with a view to further action.”

In a statement on Thursday the HSE said “these staff are not direct employees of the HSE. However, we have indicated our willingness at being party at any third-party process, such as WRC conciliation. The resolution of these matters is not within the remit solely of the HSE.”

Tusla said it was “committed to ongoing engagement with relevant Tusla-funded services (covered by the Forsa decision) on the concerns they have raised such as pay restoration and other issues”.

The Department of Health, meanwhile, said it acknowledged the “very important” role of the voluntary sector organisations and work, “regretted” the prospect of further industrial action, and said that while “the Government has committed to a process, it is worth noting that Section 39 organisations are privately owned and run, and the terms and conditions of employment of staff in these organisations are ultimately between the employer and the employee”.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times