Unless the Government delivers on rolling back additional, unpaid, working hours introduced for State employees in 2013 there will be real difficulties in negotiating a further public service agreement, trade union leaders have warned.
The Public Service Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) said on Monday it believed a sum of €150 million allocated by the Government as part of the accord concluded earlier this year should be sufficient to restore to employees the additional working hours "without negative impacts on costs or service delivery".
In a submission to a new independent body which has been established by the Government to examine the additional hours worked by public servants under the Haddington Road Agreement, the unions said: “Delivery on this commitment is an absolute requirement [of the current deal] and the degree of progress on this matter during the lifetime of the current agreement will set the tone for any negotiations on a successor to it.”
From the beginning of July 2013, staff in the public service who prior to that point had a working week of 35 hours or less (net of rest breaks) saw this increase to a minimum of 37 hours; those who were working more than 35 but fewer than 39 hours (net of rest breaks) had a new working of 39 hours while for those who were already working 39 hours the situation remained unchanged.
No ‘bluff and bluster’
The chairman of the Ictu public services committee Kevin Callinan said it was absolutely clear there would not have been a revised public service deal agreed with the Government last December without a commitment to address the additional working hours. He said this was not "bluff and bluster – we came very close to not having a deal".
“There will not be stability in the current agreement unless it is followed through and, unless we achieve a satisfactory outcome, we will have real difficulty in negotiating a successor agreement,” he said.
The Department of Public Expenditure has declined to comment on the submission to the new independent group on working hours. However last Thursday, Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath told the Dáil the additional hours were “of significant value to the State and critical to supporting the delivery of public services, including in frontline services in health, education, revenue and social protection, where they are deeply embedded in their delivery structures”.
The Minister pointed to a 2017 study carried out by the Irish Government Economic Evaluation Service which maintained that if the additional hours were to be fully replaced through recruitment , approximately 11,652 whole-time equivalent personnel would be needed at a potential cost of up to €621 million.
“At 50 per cent and 75 per cent replacement, there would be an additional recruitment requirement of between 5,826 and 8,739 whole-time equivalents and costs of €311-€466 million,” the report said.
Mr Callinan said unions did not accept the Government figures. He said the new independent body was charged with coming up with proposals on how the additional hours could be addressed.
The general secretary of the Irish Nurses' and Midwives' Organisation, Phil Ni Sheaghdha, said nurses in Northern Ireland and in Britain worked a 37.5-hour week compared with 39 hours in the Republic. She said there would continue to be difficulties in recruiting if the working week remained longer than in neighbouring jurisdictions.
She said the commitment to address the additional hours by the Government was the main reason her members voted to accept the current public service deal.
“The message I am getting very clearly from members is that unless this is delivered within the lifetime of the agreement, it will be very difficult to persuade nurses and midwives to enter into any form of successor public service agreement.”
John King, deputy general secretary of Siptu, said many staff viewed the additional hours as a punishment imposed upon them for being public servants.