4,500 Dublin hospital staff to strike on ‘outsourcing’

Posted in Blog by saraburke on March 18, 2010

This week public sector unions are back into talks with the government. Yet Siptu is planning a 48 hour all out strike action on 7th April in seven Dublin hospitals. So what is going on? At the centre of this industrial action is ‘outsourcing’. Outsourcing is the jargon used to describe the privatising of services which have been traditionally carried out by public sector workers in public services.The workers involved in this action are ‘support staff grades’ ie anybody who does not do clinical care work in a hospital, they are porters, caterers, cleaners, security, care assistants and their supervisors. These are the lowest paid staff in the health service. This industrial action is in relation to the potential privatisation of these services and possible loss or down grading of these 4,500 jobs.

The action is led by SIPTU who represent 4,500 workers in St. James, St. Vincents, Blanchardstown, the Mater, Beaumont, Tallaght and St. Colmcille’s hospitals (known as the Dublin Area Teaching Hospitals – DATs). Nationally about 25,000  workers are in such roles.

There has been a trend internationally towards outsourcing or privatising of whats called ‘hotel facilities’ – catering, security, cleaning – as a way of cost cutting. In the last social partnership agreement Towards 2016, There was agreement into relation mechanisms for progressing change in the health services. These include the health forum, high end negotiations between unions and health service management as well as usual local industrial relations functions. There was no agreement between HSE and unions on outsourcing when talks broke down in December so in effect at the moment there is no industrial relations infrastructure in place to address these areas of conflict.

What triggered this specific action was that the unions got wind of a document circulating around the DATs in relation to a proposal by Zehnachar,a private consultancy firm, as to how services could be outsourced collectively for Dublin Teaching Hospitals. Interestingly this proposal was rejected by DATS on the basis of its cost and also it would have to go to a public tendering process.

All out action for 48 hours in all of Dubln’s main hospitals is very serious. If it goes ahead – it could bring hospitals to a standstill as hospital can’t function without these people eg you need porters or attendants to bring people to theatre and you need cleaners and sterilisers to keep theatres and equipment clean. These workers are not at the high profile end of healthcare but are essential for it to function.

And while it may be cheaper in the short-term to outsource, there is significant evidence that it is not in the long term. For example a permanent public sector cleaner is paid €13.50 an hour in the Mater but if it is contracted out to a private contract cleaning firm the pay is €9.50 an hour so there is no value for money argument here. However, there is also a body of literature which shows that cleaning staff who are salaried full time employees provide a better service. They are in the hospital day in day out, the hospital is often in their community, they have a relationship with the staff and often the patients, that it is actually cheaper in the long term in terms of savings that are made by preventing long term infections.

Gerry Robinson in his programme ‘how to save the NHS’ recommended cleaning staff being part of the core hospital staff and therefore part of the team, and not just contracted in and out, as it would be more beneficial to the running of the hospital.

Beside the article by Martin Wall on this issue in todays Irish Times, there is also an article by Eithne Donnellan how these same hospitals have a budget cut of €160 million. So they are expected to provide more services to more people with less money, and under pressure to find ‘savings’. Some services in some Dublin hospitals are already out sourced and while the DATs are saying they are not outsourcing collectively, they say the hospitals will continue to consider it individually as a mechanism to save money.

The HSE say they are looking to measure and streamline whats going on in support services and ‘hotel facilities’ and have outsourced a data gathering exercise for this purpose. The unions are worried that this is the thin end of the wedge and outsourcing is being pursued by the HSE nationally as well. For example in the context of the staff moratorium, there are examples in clinical care of staff coming back from a year’s leave and are not being rehired, instead they are coming back to do the same job as an agency worker – that way the HSE has to pay more for same person to do the same job but the worker has none of the rights or security of a public sector job.

This dispute is all happening in the context of the unions back in talks with the government in ‘talks about talks’. Kieran Mulvey of the Labour Relations Commission has asked for no escalation of industrial relations action. Siptu says this action is part of broader public sector action in relation to pay cuts. Since the government walked out of pay talks, there is no industrial relations procedure in place to tackle the stand off.

Talking to people today, it would seem there is a lot of misinformation and no communication going on, if people were talking there would be some hope of reaching agreement and preventing all out strike for two days early next month.

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