School secretaries and caretakers represented by Fórsa are to ballot for industrial action when schools re-open following the summer break, after education department officials this week refused in talks to discuss proposals to overcome a two-tier pay system that leaves most staff on the statutory minimum wage. The union says this will likely result in industrial action in the next school term.
Fórsa officials who attended negotiations said they expected to discuss the substance of the union’s claim for pay justice. Instead, departmental officials announced their intention to postpone talks while they spent the next four months doing further work on costing the claim – despite having presented detailed cost estimates to an Oireachtas committee last month. The union says cost studies had also been done in 2010, 2014 and 2018.
The development came as the union revealed that over 12,000 people had signed its petition calling for fair pay and conditions for school secretaries and caretakers. The petition calls on the Minister for Education and Skills to end a long-standing two-tier pay system for school secretaries and caretakers by placing those currently employed directly by school management boards on public service pay scales.
Fórsa has mounted a campaign for pay justice for school secretaries, most of whom are very poorly paid and have irregular, short-term contracts that force them to sign on during the summer holidays.
This is because of an antiquated and discriminatory employment status, which was foisted upon school secretaries in 1978. It means that the few directly-employed by the education department have public service status, while the majority are employed by school management boards, which determine their pay and conditions.
Speaking after talks collapsed yesterday, Fórsa’s Head of Education Andy Pike, said industrial action looked inevitable so long as the education department refused to discuss the substance of the claim.
“School secretaries have done everything short of industrial action in their campaign for fair pay. They welcome the public support expressed in our petition, and the pledges of solidarity from politicians of all colours.
“But this is totally disconnected from the reality of the department’s position, which is to constantly stall and disengage. It's beggars belief that officials want to waste another four months on number-crunching, before spending an undisclosed period ‘considering’ the outcome. This when it presented its cost estimates to the Oireachtas less than two months ago,” he said.
School secretary Kathleen O’Doherty said: “Around 90% of our school secretaries are locked out of the regularised pay system. They have no holiday pay, no sick pay, no real job security, certainly no occupational pensions, and no access to public service salary scales. Most of them earn just above – or in some cases below – the legal minimum wage. It’s time this antiquated and discriminatory employment arrangement was scrapped, and replaced with a model that reflects the vast range of responsibilities and tasks school secretaries perform.”
In recent evidence to the Oireachtas Education committee, Mr Pike said school secretaries were uniquely disadvantaged in the education sector, and worked under conditions that fall far short of the standards set elsewhere.
“The best a school secretary can hope for – and that’s only about 10% of the total – is to be paid the same as a public service clerical officer. Yet the routine work they carry out often far exceeds the responsibilities set out in the clerical officer job descriptions used by the Public Appointments Service,” he said.