Medical scientists’ dispute over pay and conditions has been “left to fester” by successive governments for more than 20 years, Sinn Féin has said.
Party deputy leader Pearse Doherty said the issues at the centre of their current industrial action "didn't fall out of the sky" and that unfair pay and failure to address poor conditions has "led to a chronic retention and recruitment crisis" in the profession.
Mr Doherty was speaking during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil on Tuesday as medical scientists again withdrew routine laboratory services, with thousands more hospital outpatient appointments cancelled.
The Medical Laboratory Scientists Association (MLSA) has 2,100 members, with the vast majority returning to the picket nationwide this week in only their second strike in the 60-year history of the sector.
Mr Doherty said up to 30,000 medical procedures and appointments had been cancelled this week, following on from 14,000 cancellations last week. He called on the Taoiseach to intervene with the HSE, Department of Health and Department of Public Expenditure to bring a "meaningful proposal" to the MLSA to resolve the dispute.
“This dispute has been left to fester by successive governments for more than 20 years. The issues at the centre of this strike didn’t fall out of the sky – medical scientists are paid 8 per cent less than other colleagues who perform identical work in the hospital labs,” Mr Doherty said.
‘Nothing has been done’
“Laboratory aides who report to medical scientists are receiving a higher starting salary than the medical scientists.
“They have fewer education and progression opportunities than comparable colleagues and these issues have been raised continuously with government for over two decades by medical scientists, by the representatives, and nothing has been done.”
The Donegal TD said medical scientists were among the "unsung heroes" of the Covid-19 pandemic, designing a testing system "from scratch".
“They suspended industrial action for over two years, they put aside their grievances for the good of our people, and their contribution in the fight against the virus was invaluable,” Mr Doherty added.
“Medical scientists stood up and went beyond the call of duty – now your Government has left them standing on the picket line for a second week.”
In response, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said "optimal use" must be made of the industrial relations machinery of the State, either through the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) or the Labour Court, to resolve the dispute.
Mr Martin said the Government was "anxious" to get the issue resolved but that such a resolution "must always be conscious of potential implications".
“There are always further implications and the broader consideration of this has to be within that context,” Mr Martin added.
“In other words, people need to fully be aware of all the implications and agreements in relation to a specific issue, particularly in the health service.
“Anybody involved in the health service would know that to be historically the case, and experience informs us that a deal in one particular location of the health service can have repercussions across the service that may not have been envisioned at the outset.
“The best way to resolve an issue of that kind is to either use the WRC or the Labour Court so the details can be hammered out and ring-fenced to ensure we can get a resolution to this in the best interests of all concerned.”
Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy said further strike action by medical scientists next week could not be countenanced, adding that the industrial action was "completely disabling the health service".
The Government is to table a counter motion in the Dáil as Opposition parties are set to table their own motion in favour of pay parity for the workers.
People Before Profit is tabling a Private Members’ Motion calling for the Government to “immediately implement the average 8 per cent pay increase sought by MLSA members”. The motion also calls on the Government to begin a recruitment campaign to fill the medical scientists’ posts that are currently vacant.
The Cabinet discussed the issue today and agreed to table a counter motion. This will “note the dedication, professionalism and commitment of all medical scientists throughout the country” and state that they have “performed a crucial role in the pandemic response”.
It also states that medical scientists are “the hidden heroes of the health service, as they are the people who process test samples for Covid-19, who do blood tests, who test urine and stool samples, and they have been under intense pressure during the Covid-19 pandemic”.
While the motion notes that the MLSA want “pay parity between medical scientists and clinical biochemists”, Ministers agreed that the Government would be calling on all sides to use the existing dispute resolution mechanisms of the State. These include the WRC and the Labour Court.
The Government believes industrial action should be suspended while this process is ongoing.