Strike action by water services workers scheduled for next week is not necessary, the Minister for Housing has said.
Darragh O’Brien insisted the remaining issues between the workers and the department can be resolved without industrial action and were “very small” in number.
The Dublin Fingal TD was responding to questions from Labour TD Duncan Smith, who raised industrial disputes of workers who come under the remit of his department – water service workers and firefighters.
Water workers at 30 local authorities across the Republic are to take part in a two-day strike next week on June 7th and 8th over the terms of employment if transferring to Uisce Éireann, formerly Irish Water.
Trade union Siptu, which is representing the workers, said water shortages and boil water notices were likely as the quality of water cannot be monitored as normal.
About 2,000 retained firefighters, who are also members of Siptu, are to take part in industrial action on Tuesday, June 6th, by only responding to emergency calls and not co-operating with training and drills.
A series of rolling work stoppages are scheduled across 200 fire stations from Tuesday, June 13th, and an all-out strike is planned for Tuesday, June 20th, if the dispute has not been resolved.
The firefighters are striking over issues with being able to take leave due to staff shortages and reduced incomes due to a drop in callouts over recent years.
The strike action was called after Siptu said an offer from management “fell short” of what was required to address the issue and claimed it fell short of what the Department of Housing had recommended.
Mr Smith told Mr O’Brien that he and the Government had “trumpeted and celebrated” the high employment figures in the country when workers’ conditions were being squeezed.
Figures published by the Central Statistics Office on Tuesday showed the monthly unemployment rate for May was 3.8 per cent, the lowest rate since records began in 1998.
“However, if we look under the bonnet, what workers are really facing in this country is a crisis in terms of their real wages, in their terms and conditions of employment, and how far their actual wage packet is going,” Mr Smith said.
He said there had been “no contingency plans” from local authorities in relation to boil water notices or safety notices.
“They are ignoring this campaign for what is such a vital service,” he said.
“No commitment has been given to ensure workers who remain in local authorities won’t be at a financial loss.
“That is a commitment that they’re waiting on, minister, and they’re waiting on you to give it.”
Speaking in the Dáil, Mr O’Brien said he had been “actively engaged” in the issue over the last two years.
“I gave a firm commitment, firstly, that was sought by the unions, that no-one would be transferred to Uisce Éireann on a compulsory basis, that people will be transferred over with existing terms and conditions, all of this is confirmed in correspondence, I’ve met directly with the unions myself.
“Those who decide to stay within the local government sector will have their terms and conditions also protected.
“I’ve written to the unions myself today, recognising the progress that we have made and that all parties have made in this regard, and to ask them to engage with the Workplace Relations Commission, to convene a meeting of the Irish Water Consultative Group as soon as possible, to try to come to a resolution around the issues raised by Siptu.”
He said the issues specifically relate to allowances in relation to overtime.
“What I’ve said very clearly, that those who are in receipt of allowances that they will get the requisite overtime in local authorities, those who decide to stay.”
He clarified that contingency plans are being worked on by local authorities.
“I don’t believe strike action is necessary. There’s a small number of issues that remain that can be worked out.”
In response to questions posed by Independent TD Michael McNamara, Mr O’Brien said: “Anyone who wants to stay in local government will stay in local government and their pay and conditions will be protected, and I’ve said that in writing myself. That’s absolute fact.
“There are issues around overtime and allowances which, I believe, are eminently resolvable.
“I don’t believe there’s a need for industrial action. I don’t believe there’s a need for the public in any way to be discommoded here over a very small number of issues.
“I’m asking people and unions to re-engage with a process that has worked very well heretofore. We’re close to its finalisation. Sometimes things can get tricky toward the end, that can happen just before an agreement, but I believe that an agreement can be made.”
On firefighters, he said: “We’re continuing to engage with union representatives in this regard and I believe we can come to a resolution that will mean we can retain people in the fire service, but attract more, because there has been a big issue in attracting newer staff to this and we heavily depend on the retained fire services and, indeed, the full-time fire services.”
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He said that “real progress was made on the provision of a revised model of retained fire services delivery that would provide for effective service delivery and a suitable work-life balance”, but added “at this stage, it’s not impossible to reach a positive conclusion to that process to the satisfaction of all of the parties”.
“We’ve made real progress on the rostering, we’re progressing on time off, we’ll probably progress on allowances also. I want this resolved.”
Mr O’Brien said that the programme for government had committed to holding a referendum on water and on housing, and “I expect that to happen”.