Elected representatives will be aware that grant paid school secretaries and caretakers have been campaigning for many years to end the unjust two tier pay system in our schools. School secretaries have been in contact with many of you over the past two years as part of our Support Our Secretaries Campaign, and will have explained to you the difficulties they experience with low pay, the requirement to claim Job Seekers benefit when they are laid off during school holidays, and the lack of pensions for staff who often spend all their working lives as the only employee in a school denied access to a pension. What exacerbates this situation further is the fact that their colleagues carrying out exactly the same work in schools administered by Education and Training Boards are public servants with access to the clerical officer pay scale, holiday pay, maternity benefits and pensions.
School secretaries took industrial action in 2020 to highlight this problem. The Fianna Fáíl election manifesto 2020 included a commitment to resolve the problem stating on page 74 that “It is manifestly unfair that two people, doing the same job, with the same qualifications and to the same standard should be on vastly different wages. It is even more unfair that some should be forced to sign on each summer.” This sentiment was shared across the parties. Indeed, we have not found a single representative who does not support changing this outdated model of employment.
On 8th October 2020 the Tánaiste at Leader’s Questions set out a new Government policy in favour of regularising the pay, conditions and pensions of school secretaries and caretakers. Whilst technical issues were identified as requiring careful consideration, this, none the less represented confirmation for the first time that the Government wanted to resolve this long standing problem. Subsequently later in October with the assistance of the WRC a regularisation agreement was signed off between Fórsa and the Department of Education and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
Discussions then commenced on the potential regularisation of pay, conditions and pensions. The Union side submitted detailed proposals on how the clerical officer scale could be used to provide a 52 week (pro rata) salary, with no need to sign on, where an employee may not be required to work all year round, an outline new national contract was drafted and other issues raised in the hope that an agreement could be reached. The Departments insisted in a lengthy delay whilst they conducted a survey on headcount and potential costs. Successive meetings then failed to produce any progress as the Departments were unable or unwilling to set out a clear position. Finally, at the request of the WRC, they did set out their formal position on 30th July which consisted of an offer to increase the hourly rate of pay from €13p/h to €13.50p/h, with secretaries earnings eventually increasing to €15p/h in the year 2030. In respect of conditions of service such as holiday pay or maternity benefits, they stated that only statutory entitlements would apply and no change was possible. They refused to consider the provision of public service pensions.
This offer was rejected as it failed to provide any form of parity with staff working in ETB schools, and did not amount to a regularisation as per the agreement between the parties. Subsequently the employer’s side confirmed that the only mandate they were given was to standardise pay levels within the existing Ancillary Grant arrangements, and that any comparison with ETB secretaries and caretakers was irrelevant. Their objective was the maintenance of the existing two tier system as the permanent employment model for the future, and they saw no need to regularise pay, conditions or pensions with reference to public service conditions.
This stance is contrary to the statement setting out Government policy made by the Tánaiste last October, and it is also at variance with not only the Fianna Fáil manifesto commitment, but also the public statements of a significant number of Government ministers.
Either this Government never had any intention of regularising pay, conditions and pensions for school secretaries and caretakers, in which case the commitment should not have been put into the general election manifesto and the announcement of the 8th October last should not have been made, or alternatively the Government has manifestly failed to give effect to its policy as their own Negotiators have adopted a very different policy objective.
Fórsa does not know which of those two alternative explanations is correct. We do know that our members feel let down by the Government. They believed the commitments given by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil respectively, now they know that there was never any intention to regularise their situation they are angry and distrustful of the political system.
Fórsa does not believe that the Government has been negotiating in good faith, the process has been lengthy, and after 11 months it has produced nothing to address the fundamental unfairness of the Grant Paid employment model in our schools where all staff are treated as public servants unless they are employed as the school secretary or caretaker.
That is why our members are taking industrial action on Wednesday 15th September. We do not wish to cause any disruption in schools so have asked all those participating in the strike to attend planned events in Dublin and not to protest or picket outside their school, therefore there will be no school closures as a consequence of the strike action.
We ask that you continue to support the campaign to end the unfair treatment of school secretaries and caretakers. Their situation is unique in that there are no other employments, including those funded through Government grants, where all employees are treated as public servants except the very lowest paid. Our schools are diverse and different, there are schools employing over 100 staff and schools that employ only five staff. The one common denominator is that in every independent school the secretary and the caretaker are the only staff denied access to public service status, they are the only ones required to sign on, and the only people in the school who finish their working lives with no pension.
Please continue to raise this important issue with Government ministers. If a resolution is to be found to this problem then their negotiators need to be given a mandate make the necessary changes to deliver a meaningful regularisation of pay conditions and pension provision.
We hope to see you at the Rally for Secretaries and Caretakers in Kildare Street from 12 to 2pm on Wednesday 15th September next.