Thursday, 23 September 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
89. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the status of and position regarding ongoing talks regarding pay and entitlements for school secretaries and caretakers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45575/21]
I ask the Minister for an update on ongoing talks regarding pay and entitlements not just for school secretaries, but also for caretakers. I appreciate and understand that talks are ongoing but perhaps the Minister will outline what she can tell us in relation to the matter.
School secretaries and caretakers are valued members of the school community and the Department is fully aware of the vitally important role played by them in the running of our schools.
I welcome the significant progress that has been made through the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, in recent days. This builds upon previous recommendations of an independent arbitrator for a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019 and that a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 be phased in over that period. Fórsa trade union has tabled a follow-on claim and officials from the Department and school management bodies have been engaging with Fórsa on the issues. On 27 October 2020, under the auspices of the WRC, an understanding was agreed on a pathway to progress the issues.
Following intensive discussions at the WRC on 13 September, significant progress has been made in this dispute. Subject to agreement on all elements of the claim, the Department has offered to move school secretaries' pay rates to a scale which is aligned with the clerical officer grade 3 pay scale within education and training boards on a pro ratabasis, with an effective date of implementation for these new pay arrangements of 1 September 2021. There is also agreement in principle to take the same approach to the consideration of appropriate pay and conditions of grant-funded caretakers. When the final package for secretaries has been agreed and an implementation plan put in place, intensive engagement will begin on achieving that.
I welcome the deferral of the action scheduled for Wednesday, 15 September to allow for intensive talks to resume aimed at resolving the claim and agreeing a final package. I also look forward to continued progress under the WRC. Significant progress on this issue has been made. I acknowledge the generosity of all concerned around the table to make this possible and the engagement via the WRC. As I said, what has been advanced thus far for school secretaries has also been agreed in principle for caretakers.
I, too, acknowledge the work of school secretaries and caretakers. Without them, our schools simply would not function. They have obviously had to battle not just for fair pay and equality, but also fair terms and conditions. They have been in a most unfair system for some time. I also acknowledge the work of Fórsa in bringing this dispute to the position that it is in now.
I welcome the moves and the details outlined by the Minister in relation to pay scales and pay equality. The Minister noted that this has been agreed in principle for caretakers, which is welcome. However, when the Tánaiste made that commitment on 8 October 2020, he said it would apply not just to pay but also to improved terms and conditions and pension rights for school secretaries. I am seeking reassurance from the Minister that that remains her position, and it does not just relate to pay equality, but also to the terms and conditions and sick pay and pension entitlements. Perhaps the Minister will outline her position on those points.
Again, I acknowledge, as the Deputy has done, that considerable work has been done and it has demanded the co-operation of all involved. I acknowledge that in respect of the union, the Departments, given that this involves the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform as well as my Department, and the WRC.
To give some background, on 13 September the parties engaged at the WRC, whereby the Department, subject to the agreement of all elements of the claim, made an offer. That is important. We have referenced the pay scale, but it is subject to the agreement of all other elements of the claim. We offered to align school secretary pay rates to that of the clerical officer grade 3 pay scale within the education and training boards. As I said, this included agreement on the implementation date of 1 September 2021.
Discussions in the WRC last week focused on the very significant concessions around pay that have been offered to Fórsa on behalf of school secretaries and signalled that further talks are to take place on matters relating to the implementation of the pay scale and leave arrangements, etc. As set out in the joint statement following the WRC engagement in May 2021, it was acknowledged that the issue of public service status is more complex and needs to have regard to the state of the public finances and the repercussive effects.
I acknowledge that one follows the other and there continues to be discussion as regards all matters.
Perhaps I have missed it and it is included in what has been agreed, but I refer specifically to pension and sick leave entitlements, which are very important terms and conditions that other school secretaries enjoy. That has been a major part of the issue as regards equality. I ask the Minister to outline specifically what is happening in relation to those entitlements.
The Minister stated that agreement had been reached in principle in relation to caretakers.
In the deal on pay and entitlements, will school secretaries and caretakers be dealt with together, although school secretaries have advanced slightly? Why are caretakers coming second? Why could both categories not have been dealt with together? Could I have a clear timeline for the delivery of everything? Those affected have waited for a very long time for equality and a fairer system. I welcome the progress that has been made. Pensions are really important to school secretaries and caretakers.
School secretaries and caretakers are the heartbeat of our school communities in many instances. Beyond the principals, they are the most public faces of our schools. They are the people who keep the schools ticking. It was a travesty that, for so long, they were operating under a set of unfair and insecure conditions. I welcome the progress that has been made. The big lesson for all workers to take from the school secretaries on all this is that the benefits of unionising and working together remain valid. My appeal to the Minister is to ensure that our school secretaries and caretakers get a fair deal. This is particularly required when it comes to pension entitlements and sick pay. There must be full equality between those who work in schools outside the ETB arrangements and those who work within them.
There is no doubt but that this has dragged on for far too long. I welcome the progress that has been made. I appreciate that the Minister is working on this and that negotiations are continuing. I urge her to continue to engage and try to ensure a fair and equitable solution. The fact is that schools would come to a halt without caretakers and secretaries. It is vital that caretakers not be forgotten. The Minister's words suggest they will not be.
Pay equality is not an outrageous demand, nor is fairness in terms of conditions and access to sick leave. Meeting this demand has to involve ensuring school secretaries and caretakers have pension entitlements also.
Deputy Carthy took the words out of my mouth in saying great credit is due to Fórsa over how it has represented the caretakers and secretaries. It is an advertisement for the benefits of being a member of a union. I urge every worker who is struggling with terms and conditions and pay to join a union because there is strength in unity.
I appreciate the points the Deputies have made. They do not have to tell me the value of school secretaries and caretakers. I have worked all my teaching life in the school sector and I am very familiar with the work of school secretaries and, indeed, caretakers.
Specifically on some of the points that have been made, a phased approach is being taken to these discussions. The first phase was on aligning the specific pay rates with those of a grade 3 clerical officer. However, there is an understanding and an agreement by all parties that no single aspect of the claim will be regarded as resolved or conceded until agreement is reached on the resolution of all aspects. That principle will continue to apply during the course of the current talks.
There was a question on why there was an advancement in respect of school secretaries. The necessary data have been collected on secretaries and therefore there has been an advancement in respect of them. Fewer data are available on caretakers. Data need to be collected so there will be clarity on the caretaker issue. It has been acknowledged that, in principle, what applies to one category applies to the other.
There has been great co-operation on the part of all concerned, and a generosity and willingness to come to the table to engage in discussion and find the pathway forward. The most positive aspect of this has been the willingness of all concerned to address the issues as they need to be addressed and to do so as expeditiously as possible. I appreciate the points made by previous speakers on the time span but it is our wish to bring this to a conclusion as soon as we possibly can.