NI water dispute to escalate as shop stewards vote to withdraw ‘emergency cover’ arrangements

unite-white-out-of-redCall for Minister to intervene to avoid consequences of prolonged industrial action

‘Goodwill’ emergency cover arrangements withdrawn by workforce after management abuse

January 10: The Water Group of Trade Unions, including UNITE, NIPSA and GMB, has announced the termination of a protocol designed to avoid water shortages during the festive period. As part of the arrangements, between the 23 December and 4 January workers responded to a number of critical incidents outside their normal working hours.

Unite industrial officer, Joanne McWilliams, indicated that despite some progress at negotiations mediated by the Labour Relations Agency (LRA), management had failed to address the workforce’s concerns in relation to proposed changes to pension costs and terms and conditions.

“While management had moved to address some areas of contention, their proposals in relation to pension costs were completely inadequate. Furthermore, management sought a change to ‘bell to bell’ working arrangements which would drastically extend the working day for water service staff with no recompense offered.

“All three unions brought the revised management proposals to our membership who unanimously rejected them.

“Our members have the right to take industrial action but have decided to limit this to a work-to-rule. Over the festive period we agreed to provide emergency cover to ensure that households didn’t experience any adverse impact from our industrial action.

“Unfortunately, there were a number of instances where this gesture of goodwill was abused by management. As such, we have decided to withdraw from arrangements to provide emergency cover with immediate effect. This will mean that staff participating in industrial action will not be asked by the ‘strike committee’ to respond to any incidents outside their normal working hours.

“While we regret this situation, it has resulted from management intransigence. There is still time, even at this eleventh hour, for the Minister and management to avoid the consequences of this concerning situation to intervene and make serious proposals to address our members’ concerns”, Ms McWilliams concluded.

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2 Responses to NI water dispute to escalate as shop stewards vote to withdraw ‘emergency cover’ arrangements

  1. I just want to register my view, which I would add is widely held within my local community, that the current action relating to maintenance of water supplies seems to be based on damaging the community and treating them as hostages in this dispute. The last few weekends resulted in the less- represented rural population suffering significantly, especially the vulnerable members such as elderly, disabled and children. Melting snow is a poor reflection on the NIPSA campaign and its impact on the less well-off who cant afford to drive some distance to collect water, even if the roads were passable.
    The rural population are easy targets and if this was happening in derry or Belfast the reaction would be different. Presently the mealy – mouthed politicians from every spectrum are more interested in garnering votes for May and are afraid to be critical – no votes in advocating privatisation or water charges. But there is a serious and widespread disconnect between NI water workforce and its customers – just listening to radio comments from those affected in Draperstown last week( and still affected probably) about the disdain they endured trying to get some information makes that very evident.
    Considering the time of year and the severe current weather which means some households have no heating if they have no mains water pressure, would postponing this action until more favourable conditions not be seen a s a charitable gesture? Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the dispute.

    • Willie,

      Thanks for your comment. NI Water workers are amongst the lowest paid utility workers in the UK or Ireland. In the past, their low pay has been partially offset by a decent pension and job security – both these benefits have been attacked by management and our members have been forced to respond.

      Our members put in place an emergency cover protocol which ensured that the strike didn’t affect households over the festive period – however, due to management abuse of this mechanism it was withdrawn. This led to mounting crisis affecting households – unfortunately, it was only at this point that the Stormont Ministers woke up to the seriousness of this issue and thankfully we were able to agree terms to suspend our action.

      Wider questions need to be asked, not least of which are why is a service so dependent on our members working overtime that simply working to rule (not a strike) can cause such disruption. Why was there such an acute impact on services in rural areas and the west – this provides evidence of a legacy of underinvestment that Unite has repeated raised with our political representatives.

      No NI Water worker wanted to engage in this work-to-rule, they were pushed into it by brutal cuts pushed through by the NI Executive. We hope that we can build a more effective working relationship with management to ensure an optimal service is provided to all our citizens.

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