Balloting of more than 2,000 water-services workers employed by local authorities gets under way on Monday in a dispute that could lead to water outages and derail Government plans to establish Uisce Éireann – formerly Irish Water – as a stand-alone utility.
Siptu, which is facing a revolt among significant numbers of water-services members, is calling on the Department of Housing to break the impasse between its members and their employers.
Describing the dispute as “very high stakes”, Siptu divisional organiser Karan O’Loughlin said the “vast majority” of the 31 local authorities were not honouring a commitment made at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) last year – that water workers who remain with them rather than transfer to Uisce Éireann after 2026, will retain their current pay terms.
“If we can’t get agreement on the interpretation of what that means then there will be a strike. There will be very significant consequences for that. These are water-services workers. It will have an impact on domestic water, business’s water,” she said.
“If that ends up being a long-running dispute … there will be no transfer [of water-services workers] to Uisce Éireann in the meantime” and the agreement “will not be operable until this issue is resolved”.
Balloting of Siptu water-services workers will run until May 4th, with results declared in local authorities as they come in and work stoppages possible thereafter.
Since January 1st, Uisce Éireann has been the new name for Irish Water. It was established in 2013 as a company responsible for the planning, management and oversight of the public water supply and wastewater, with service-level agreements with local authorities to maintain water infrastructure.
Under the Water Services Act 2022 Uisce Éireann is a public utility to take full control of water services, directly employing its own staff, including repair and maintenance workers, by January 1st, 2027. This will require as many as possible of water workers in local authorities to join its ranks.
Last June 23rd an agreement was reached between the four main unions – Siptu, Fórsa, Unite and Connect – the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA), Uisce Éireann and the Department of Housing at the WRC. Known as the ‘water framework document’ (WFD), it sets out options for water workers.
Each of the 3,200 workers can choose to transfer to the new utility, stay in their local authority but redeployed to other sections or take voluntary redundancy.
Workers are already being invited to information meetings hosted by Uisce Éireann and their local authorities, and many say they feel under pressure to make decisions about where their futures lie.
Sources say the expectation was a majority would choose to transfer to the new utility.
Uisce Éireann is eager they do. A spokesman said the utility had “commenced our engagement with all local authority staff and we want and need as many as possible to choose to become Uisce Éireann employees”.
It appears, however, more than anticipated may want to stay in their local authorities. These “will remain in the direct employment of the current local authority, maintaining their current terms and conditions of employment,” says the WFD.
While the two largest unions, Siptu and Forsa, insist this means they will not lose a cent of current take-home pay, the LGMA has not stated this and Siptu members who have spoken to The Irish Times feel anxious for their futures.
They fear overtime and on-call allowances, negotiated over many years and particular to water workers, will not carry over after redeployment, amounting to potential pay cuts of up to €600 a month.
They are angered too by Siptu’s decision not to put the WFD to a ballot, as had been promised, and disillusioned by its failure to secure a date for a referendum on ownership of Uisce Éireann.
These, says Don Carroll a water worker with Cork County Council, were “red-line issues” when Siptu went into the WRC and amount now to “broken commitments”.
But Siptu officials say the “vast majority of members are four-square behind the document” and want it implemented. Feedback from workers’ committees and from regional meetings was that the document offered choice, so a vote was not needed, they add.
Ms O’Loughlin agrees workers have “serious concerns” about the absence of clarity from local authorities as to how they interpret the phrase: “maintaining their current terms and conditions of employment”.
She says: “We wrote to all 31 chief executives seeking confirmation that our members would not be out of pocket, and that they understood that the value of overtime and allowances would be retained … They have not given us that assurance so we have no choice but to move forward with the ballot to ensure everybody is clear, and that none of our people lose money.”
She believes local authorities are “nervous” that if they commit to keep paying accrued allowances after redeployment they could “end up with some financial difficulties”.
“So, to enable them to say yes to our members, the department needs to assure those local authorities that they will support them financially in resolving this,” she said.
A department spokesman said: “In relation to any legacy costs falling to local authorities arising from the transformation process, the department is working closely with local authorities to quantify and resolve these costs in a timely manner. The department is committed to ensuring the local authority sector is fully funded to undertake its key local functions.”
A planned referendum on water ownership would be held in conjunction with a referendum on housing, he added. Minister Darragh O’Brien was awaiting proposed wording for that from the Housing Commission.
A spokeswoman for the LGMA said: “As the matters raised continue to be the subject of ongoing engagements between the parties, it would not be appropriate to comment at this point in time.”