By Valerie O’Leary
Poor pay and conditions, especially in the context of the cost of living crisis, and staff burnout are leading to a difficulty in retaining and recruiting public sector staff. Combined with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the hardship faced particularly by frontline workers has led to staff shortages in many areas. While historic shortages of public sector workers existed pre-pandemic, particularly in healthcare and education, with inflation currently at 9% and soaring rents, there are now added difficulties for the public sector to find and hold on to staff.
Stretched in health and education
There is also a difficulty in recruiting enough staff to overcome those that are leaving. The health sector for example had a staff turnover rate of 7.7% last year. To mitigate this, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has called for an additional 2,000 nurses a year to be recruited each year for the next three years. Up to 20% of Medical Scientist posts were unfilled earlier this year, which was a factor in medical scientists voting overwhelmingly to take industrial action in May over pay and conditions.
This problem is not unique to health. A survey by the Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland (ASTI) published earlier this year shows that 55% of all second-level schools have unfilled vacancies. The survey found that the main reasons for the lack of teachers was the unequal two-tier pay, and the impact of an increased workload and work intensity on teachers’ wellbeing brought on by large classes. At the end of August, just days before the return to school, there were 378 teacher vacancies in secondary schools, as well as over 400 vacancies for Special Needs Assistants (SNAs).
These staff shortages have a real impact in the provision of public services. It contributes to overcrowded hospitals and overcrowded classrooms.
Union leaders watch on as services erode
This is not unique to Ireland. In fact, a European Labour Authority survey last year showed that out of 30 countries surveyed, 18 had shortages in nursing professionals, and 11 in healthcare assistants. Nursing in particular has been in the top ten of shortage occupations since 2018. In addition, the European Public Service Union has estimated a shortage of around 2 million health and social care workers across the EU, including 600,000 nurses.
This situation is brewing anger amongst many public sector workers. Public sector unions are currently being balloted for the new public sector pay deal of a 6.5% increase phased over two years. While the majority at the tops of the public sector unions have called for the acceptance of this agreement, given the soaring cost of living, these increases are completely inadequate for most public sector workers. In effect, this deal will mean that public sector workers’ pay will decline further.
The trade union leadership has yet again shown no ability or strategy to defend the pay and conditions of workers. A refusal of the deal by public sector workers ahead of Budget 2023, for instance, would have put tremendous pressure on the government to act on those issues. Instead, the trade union leadership called for an acceptance of the deal with no plan of action over the coming months.
Reclaim the unions to fight back
While at the time of writing it looks like this deal will be accepted – because of the lack of an alternative strategy from the unions – public sector workers, whether unionised or not, should organise regardless of the deal and start to demand inflation-busting, double-digit wage increases for decent living standards as well as make demands for better conditions.
The context of very significant shortages of staff in essential services means that public sector workers are well placed to put pressure on the government and fight for improvements for themselves and the services they provide to the public, as well as build militant campaigns to mobilise workers across the public and private sectors to reclaim trade unions into a fighting movement based on workers’ solidarity.