The Government has made one major concession to unions in the new pay deal
New review of additional working hours to be put in place, going back on previous stance
There were disputes involving gardaí and teachers in 2016 and nurses in 2019. File photograph: Cyril Byrne
The proposed new public service pay agreement would, if ratified, significantly change the way pay is determined for State employees .
For the Government, the deal would give it pay certainty going into an unpredictable period given the fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit and may pave the way for the achievement of greater long-term flexibility and work practice reforms.
Earlier Government proposals about introducing weekend working or five-over-seven-day rostering - which were strongly opposed by unions - did not make it into the agreement. However the document says: “Where necessary in response to public demand, working arrangements for teams could include extended opening hours for public-facing services, to deliver increased and more accessible services to the public. Where needs are identified parties will engage on starting and finishing times to meet business needs to ensure cost effective delivery of services “.
The Government would appear, though, to have made one major concession in principle, regarding the working week for hundreds of thousands of public service staff.
It was a general principle of previous governments and the Department of Public Expenditure that while pay cuts introduced in the austerity era were temporary and would be rolled back over time, the parallel work practice reforms would be permanent. This included the additional, unpaid, working hours for staff introduced under the Haddington Road agreement in 2013 at the height of the recession.
Over the last year or so there has been a growing campaign by some unions to have these a abolished. This was a key aim of unions going into the talks on a new deal.
Under the proposed new deal these hours will not be scrapped immediately. However an independent body will report on its examination of this whole area by the end of the year. Crucially the Government has agreed to put in place a €150 million fund in 2020 to pay for the implementation of its recommendations.
Whatever the outcome of the review, the additional working hour arrangements introduced after 2013 would not appear now to be permanent and are open to change.
Abolishing the additional hours will not come cheap. The Department of Public Expenditure estimated in 2017 that such a move would cost up over €600million although this figure is disputed by trade unions.
In October, the head of the HSE Paul Reid said the removal of the additional unpaid working hours for staff would have a “significant and major impact on the HSE”and other public bodies as rosters and clinical care had been built around these additional hours.
The headline issue from the proposed agreement will, as is usual, be the pay proposals.
The Government had entered the talks seeking a pay freeze for next year while unions had an unspecified objective of securing a reasonable level of increase.
The majority of staff will receive a one per cent increase in October 2021 and in October 2022. However there will be a string in the tail for higher earning personnel who were scheduled to receive the final elements of pay restoration arising from austerity-era cuts over the next year or so.
The proposed agreement says: “Where an individual is due an amount of pay restoration by July 2021 under Section 19 and by July 2022 under Section 20 of the Public Service Pay Pensions Act 2017, they will not benefit from the general round increase in that year. Where the amount of restoration is less than the general round increase the individual will be eligible to be paid the balance on the date of the general round increase”.
A new key feature of the proposed agreement is the introduction of sectoral bargaining arrangements. Previous deals going back to the 2010 Croke Park accord adopted a one-size-fits -all approach with all groups effectively getting the same amounts.
However this was not sufficiently flexible to deal with issues affecting specific grades, leading to disputes involving gardaí and teachers in 2016 and nurses in 2019. Under a new system, a sectoral bargaining fund will be established to deal with outstanding adjudications, commitments, recommendations, awards and claims. The Exchequer will allocate one per cent of basic pay to the new fund.
As an alternative to dealing with specific claims, the money in the sectoral fund could be used to pay for a general pay increase for groups in that particular area.
In the past the Government had a big stick in the form of financial emergency legislation to apply financial penalties - such as delaying increments etc - to groups deemed to have gone against public service agreements. However while such sanctions were applied to second-level teachers in the ASTI in 2016 no similar measure was put in place against nurses after they went on strike in 2019.
The new agreement has beefed -up proposals to deal with disputes. However a key element is likely to be that groups who engage in industrial action will be shut out of the new sectoral pay system.
The new proposed agreement has been described by trade unions leaders as “the best outcome that could be achieved over the relatively short lifetime of the proposed deal”.
It will now have to be considered by union executives and subsequently put out to ballot.
However there is anger among some representative bodies outside of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions who maintain that the they were promised a full role in the talks on the the new agreement but that they were effectively presented with a fait-accompli at the end.