Union seeks talks on reducing public service working hours

Fórsa disputes Government’s claim removing extra hours would cost about €600m a year

Senior general secretary designate of Fórsa Kevin Callinan said “advances in new technologies and work organisation could defray much of the cost of reduced working time in the public service and elsewhere”. File photograph: Laura Hutton

Senior general secretary designate of Fórsa Kevin Callinan said “advances in new technologies and work organisation could defray much of the cost of reduced working time in the public service and elsewhere”. File photograph: Laura Hutton

 

The country’s largest public service union is to seek talks on reducing the working hours for State employees back to pre-crisis levels as part of a mid-term review of the existing public service agreement with the Government.

The trade union Fórsa disputed Government estimates that rolling back the additional working hours imposed on civil and public servants following the economic crash could cost more than €600 million per year.

Speaking at the union’s civil service conference in Kilkenny on Wednesday, Fórsa’s senior general secretary-designate Kevin Callinan said the €600 million figure suggested by the Department of Public Expenditure was at least 50 per cent higher than the Government’s forecast when the additional time was introduced in 2013.

He also maintained that “advances in new technologies and work organisation could defray much of the cost of reduced working time in the public service and elsewhere”.

Mr Callinan said discussion of the restoration of pre-crisis working hours should form part of mid-term review of the existing Public Service Stability Agreement which governs pay and working conditions for most public service staff.

He said such a mid-term review was necessary to “bolster the agreement’s credibility by taking account of improved economic indicators and past income foregone”.

Speaking to almost 400 delegates at the opening of Fórsa’s civil service conference, Mr Callinan maintained that 12 branches of the union had submitted motions on the issue of increased working time – more than on any other issue under consideration.

He said similar motions would be debated at the union’s parallel local government conference which is also taking place in Kilkenny over the coming days.

The motions relate to an additional 2 hours and 15 minutes added to the working week of lower and middle-earning civil servants under the 2013 Haddington Road agreement.

Mr Callinan argues this had resulted in a “two-tier problem” because the temporary pay cuts experienced at the same time by higher grades – whose working time did not increase – had been restored, while additional working time for lower and middle earners remained in place.

“A few years ago, when we were in the eye of the economic storm, I opposed similar conference motions. But I’d struggle to construct a convincing argument against them now, in light of our current economic performance and rapidly-developing technological possibilities,” he said.

Pay cuts

Under Financial Emergency Measures in Public Interests (Fempi) legislation public service workers had their pay cut and a pension levy introduced in 2009, averaging at around 14 per cent of salaries.

Under the Haddington Road agreement staff in the civil and public service earning €65,000 a year or more experienced a third, but temporary, pay cut of between 5.5 per cent and 10 per cent.

By January 2018, this reduction had been reversed in full.

The union said that those who earned less accepted increased working hours to avoid a third pay cut.

“But, unlike their higher-paid colleagues, these workers have seen no restoration to pre-crisis working time levels.”

Mr Callinan said: “These were torrid times for Ireland and, when the Government sought savings to fill an extra and unexpected €1 billion hole in the public finances, we agreed to talk and [higher-paid] workers reluctantly voted to accept a third hit.

“By doing so we produced the savings that enabled the country to meet the harsh troika bailout terms, and we avoided the imposition of another public service-wide pay cut under the hated Fempi emergency legislation.

“It was the right thing to do at the time. But six years later we’re left with yet another two-tier public service problem, which leaves those on low and middle incomes – mainly women – losing out. This anomaly continues to disadvantage lower-paid workers long after better-paid staff have experienced restoration. That’s not fair. However justifiable increased working time may have been during the crisis, it goes against the prevailing grain of efforts to better balance work and family responsibilities.”

The chairman of Fórsa’s Civil Service division, Niall McGuirk, said civil servants now collectively worked 75,000 more hours each week than in 2013.

“The extra hours imposed on our members under the Haddington Road agreement still rankle with many. While the Public Service Stability Agreement is unwinding the emergency legislation that introduced pay cuts in 2009 and 2010, the question of hours still needs to be resolved. Our average hourly rate of pay has decreased, with civil servants earning just 93 per cent of what they earned 10 years ago,” he said.

Assumptions

Mr Callinan also said his proposed mid-term review would be an opportunity to reconsider the underlying assumptions of the Public Service Stability Agreement, and to take account of lost spending power, recent and projected growth rates, and pay movements in the wider economy.

He said public service agreements should also allow for individual grade claims to respond to enhanced responsibilities, higher qualification requirements, additional skills and increased productivity.

He said Fórsa wanted to restore and maintain full confidence in the current Public Service Stability Agreement and Ireland’s model of public service pay determination. “It’s time to shift our focus from the past and focus on the challenge of delivering real improvements in wages and purchasing power,” he said.

Fórsa is Ireland’s largest civil and public service union and represents about 80,000 members in health, education, local government, the Civil Service, semi-State bodies, the community sector as well as in some companies in the private sector.