Unions attempt to squeeze Government on pay and productivity

Concessions to nurses on foot of their strike earlier this year has encouraged unions to move

The Department of Public Expenditure estimates that the abolition of  additional public service hours could cost more than €620m. Photograph: Getty Images

The Department of Public Expenditure estimates that the abolition of additional public service hours could cost more than €620m. Photograph: Getty Images

 

With local and European elections imminent and the possibility of a general election on the horizon, public service trade unions are using the opportunity to squeeze the Government on pay and productivity issues.

Unions also believe that the Government’s concessions to nurses on foot of their strike earlier this year has given them some additional leverage.

Following the economic crash a decade ago public service unions had to accept a series of “concession bargaining” agreements which saw the introduction of pay cuts as well as other changes such as a less favourable pension scheme for those appointed after 2013, reductions in sick leave entitlements and longer working hours without additional pay.

The Government, while agreeing over recent years to reverse most of the pay cuts, has resisted strongly any move to water down what it saw as key productivity reforms. However, it is now facing new pressure to roll back some of these reforms as well.

A fortnight ago second-level teachers announced a campaign for the restoration of sick leave arrangements which were effectively halved in 2014.

Teachers also sought for more recent entrants the same pension benefits as are in place for more longer-serving colleagues.

This weekend Fórsa, the largest public service union, seems set to back calls for the rolling back of the longer working hours introduced for many public service staff in 2013.

The non-pay changes put in place across the public service have generated significant savings for the State, and official figures suggest it would be extremely costly to eliminate them.

The Department of Public Expenditure estimated that the abolition of the additional hours could cost more than €620 million.

Cumulative savings

The department also maintained in recent weeks that the sick leave reforms had generated cumulative savings of €167 million since 2013.

In a paper published as part of the official Budget 2018 documentation, it said if the additional hours were to be fully replaced through recruitment, approximately 11,652 whole-time equivalent staff would be required.

The Department of Public Expenditure said qualitative evidence from across the public service indicated the additional hours were “integrated into public service delivery, from extended opening hours for hospital clinics and public libraries to the roll-out of the new local enterprise offices and more frequent Garda patrols”.

”These services provide real benefits to citizens, and represent a significant structural increase in the productivity of the public services.”

The paper said it was the HSE’s view that any return to the working hours undertaken prior to 2013 would “have a severely negative impact on the provisions of services, together with being majorly costly at this time of constraint on public funding”.

“The loss of the additional hours available since 2013 would result in serious additional costs, and/or reduction in delivery of services. An example of this is that if nursing hours were to return to 37.5 hours per week, the maintenance of the same number of hours in nursing would require the taking on of an additional 1,433 nurses at an average cost of €60k per year. This would potentially cost an additional €88 million alone.”

Firm hand

The new pressure from unions for a rolling back of productivity and other reforms comes at a time when spending discipline within the Government appears to be loosening , and the Department of Public Expenditure is seeking to regain a firm hand.

The Irish Times reported in recent days that Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe is to hold bilateral meetings with Ministers over spending issues.