Life Savers Denied a Living Wage
Posted on April 29, 2016 at 11:48 AM
Stevie Fitzpatrick - General Secretary of the CWU - highlights the case of 999 Emergency Call Operators, who have been denied a living wage and union rights by their employers
Every day of the week 999 Emergency Call Operators save peoples’ lives.
Often they are the last and only hope for those on the other end of the line and it is their calm and professional conduct under intense pressure that ensures emergency help – police, medical, fire – gets to where it is needed and quickly.
They are a core part of our national front line response and without them the emergency services simply could not operate.
That should be pressure enough for these workers.
But many also have to cope with managers imposing unrealistic productivity targets, a harsh disciplinary regime, low pay and no union rights.
These are the conditions that Ireland’s 999 emergency call operators have been working under since Conduit/BT began delivering the service.
The contract was outsourced to BT Ireland in 2009 by the Department of Communications and was valued at €55 million. BT then outsourced the work to Conduit Global.
Communications Workers' Union (CWU) members working in the 999 service recently took two days of strike action in pursuit of a Living Wage and Union Recognition: basic human rights as outlined in the Congress Charter for Fair Conditions at Work and recognised widely as fundamental to the attainment of Decent Work.
Fundamentally, the 999 operators were demanding that they be treated with a basic level of dignity and respect.
Out of that came the #999Respect campaign, when operators employed by Conduit Global/BT contacted the CWU for assistance organising their workplace.
Their grievances were quite shocking, given the life-saving service they provide.
Pay was set at just €10 per hour, just above the Minimum Wage and well below the Living Wage rate of €11.50 per hour.
The management regime was harsh and petty, with workers routinely suspended and dragged through traumatic disciplinary investigations over the most trivial issues.
Such was the level of disrespect shown by Conduit/BT management in the centres that staff were warned they faced disciplinary action if they spent more than 19 minutes in the bathroom during the course of a 12-hour shift.
They were ordered to report to management before and after using the toilet and limited to seven minutes in the bathroom at any one time.
Given the routine and open contempt displayed by their bosses, it is hardly surprising that 84% of the CWU members in the service voted for strike action, in January.
The decision came after 18 months of point blank refusal by management to meet with the CWU.
In November 2015, the organising efforts of the CWU members had won a 10% pay rise.
Nonetheless, they were still paid less than the Living Wage and constantly seeing workmates marched off the call centre floor and unnecessarily suspended.
The first strike took place in the Navan centre on February 25 – the day before the general election.
To minimise the impact on this vital public service members decided to only strike in Navan, ensuring the other two centres in Dublin and Ballyshannon could operate as normal.
As a result of their action, an on-call allowance was introduced and workers who were suspended were allowed to return to work.
However, despite making a combined profit of around €50 million last year, bosses in Conduit/BT still refused to pay a Living Wage or recognise the CWU.
A second strike took place on April 7. In the days before the strike, Conduit/BT was invited to talks by the Workplace Relations Commission. They refused the invitation.
On the back of their strike action and campaign, 999 workers were recently invited to meet with a cross party group of TDs.
The meeting was organised by Sinn Féin’s Peadar Tóibín and attended by members of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, AAA-PBP and Independents. Following the meeting, Deputy Tóibín said TDs at the meeting were “shocked at the oppressive nature of the working environment suffered by these workers”.
Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty also spoke out, slamming Conduit/BT for “gross misconduct of workplace relations” and asking, “why it is acceptable for both BT Ireland and Conduit to make profits in the region of tens of millions last year, and simultaneously grossly under pay and mistreat their staff?”
To date, that’s a question the company has failed to answer.
An essential part of the problem lies with the state’s failure to demand decent standards when public work is being contracted out to the private sector.
The CWU is calling on the incoming government to ensure that any company benefiting from a state contract should be subjected to a social clause that ensures proper standards of employment are upheld.
This is line with case for reforming public procurement procedures as outlined recently by Congress.
This should require contractors to pay the Living Wage, at least, honour collective bargaining rights and respect the industrial relations machinery of the state.
The mistreatment of workers at the hands of Conduit/BT cannot be allowed to happen again.
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