Unions protest over alleged privatisation threat to employment services

Department says community sector encouraged to bid to be part of services expansion

Trade unions have staged a protest at the office of the Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys in Co Monaghan over what they described as the threat of privatisation of community employment services.

Unions are calling for an immediate halt to what they maintain are moves to allow private companies to bid, as part of a tender process, for State contracts to run programmes to assist people getting back into the workforce.

Members of the trade unions Siptu and Fórsa, working in local employment services, demanded at the protest that the Minister establish a stakeholder forum to resolve the issue.

Siptu deputy general secretary John King, said: "Our members are demanding that the Minister keeps her word and engages directly with the representatives of staff, service providers and service users to ensure the future of local employment services.

“The establishment of a genuine stakeholder forum would be the way to make an immediate start. The Minister has already given a commitment on the floor of Dáil Éireann that she should meet with workers representatives so we expect her to honour that commitment.

“The reality is that every day the Minister refuses to meet us or enter a dialogue the more and more people are being consigned to the dole queue. That is not good enough. With long term unemployment, particularly among young people, running at unsustainable levels these essential community services are needed now more than ever.”

Siptu community sector organiser Peter Glynn said if the tendering processes went ahead as planned, they would "lead to the wholesale privatisation of local employment services".

“This will see the forcing out of the effective community-based non-profit providers of local employment services. It makes no economic sense and it will rip the heart out of communities.”

Fórsa assistant general secretary, Lynn Coffey, said: "As individuals these workers are very vulnerable, but there is power in coming together.

Ms Humphreys said that most of the contracts for local employment have been in place since the 1990s “and have simply been rolled over on an annual basis”.

‘Good governance’

Responding to questions on the issue in the Dáil three weeks ago, the Minister said she was obliged for “good governance and public procurement rules” to put the contracts out for tender.

Ms Humphreys insisted that “it is wrong to look at this tender as a move away from a not-for -profit model to a payment-by -result model.

“I have to put this out for tender” but “we have put a strong focus on the connections with the local community providers and there is no reason why they can’t continue to be successful,” she said.

The Department of Social Protection said last week that as part of its economic stimulus plan the Government had committed to increasing resources dedicated to the delivery of employment services within its own Intreo service, and to expand the coverage of the local employment services to areas not currently covered by existing providers.

“The department has already increased its own complement of case officer staff and has issued a request for tender (RFT) to expand local employment services in some regions where there is currently no local employment service.

“The RFT places due emphasis on the quality of services to be provided, while expanding the capacity of the public employment service. This RFT, which is required to comply with EU procurement rules, has no impact on the contracts of existing providers in other areas and local community and voluntary organisations were encouraged to respond to the RFT,” the department said.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent