Thursday, 19 May 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Health Services Staff
I raise the serious issue of medical scientists and their trade union, the Medical Laboratory Scientist Association's 21-year campaign to implement their pay parity claim, which was approved by the then Minister for Health in 2001. With no resolution in sight, the workers were forced to take strike action yesterday. I wish to put it on the record that in 61 years, the medical scientists have only ever had one other strike, which was in 1969. They are not a mad, radical group of workers dying to get out on to the streets. This was a last resort for them to make their point about what has been going on.
As a brief background, the Medical Laboratory Scientist Association's claim for parity with clinical biochemist colleagues dates to 2001, when an expert group report recommended pay parity between the grades. The then Minister for Health, who is now the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, signed off on that and the Department of Health accepted the findings at the time. The newly awarded pay parity was lost within months as a result of an inadvertent procedural error in the first public service benchmarking award in June 2002. Following the job evaluation process for laboratory aids in 2019, the starting salary for a laboratory aid, who requires a leaving certificate, became higher than the starting salary for a State registered medical scientist with a level 8 degree. In January 2020, against a backdrop of a severe and growing recruitment and retention crisis among medical scientists, the MLSA renewed its long-standing claim for parity of pay and career progression with clinical biochemists and sought engagement with the HSE and the Department of Health.
By way of a timeline of the negotiations, a meeting with the HSE in March 2020 was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic with talks eventually beginning in August 2020. These talks stalled on the commencement of negotiations on the public service pay deal, Building Momentum, in October 2020. In February 2021, the MLSA rejected the terms of Building Momentum, taking the view that they did not deal with the key employment issues in the sector. Further discussion on the career progression side of the claim commenced with the HSE and the Department of Health under the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, in early 2021, but the employer side withdrew in April 2021, without reaching agreement. In November 2021, with no progress made on the parity claim, and in the context of an even more extreme recruitment and retention crisis, MLSA members voted 98% in favour of industrial action in pursuit of their claim.
Despite rejecting Building Momentum, the union has participated fully in sectoral bargaining talks on the Building Momentum public sector pay deal. However, following meaningful proposals from the MLSA, no satisfactory progress has been made or currently appears possible. Following several requests by the MLSA, the WRC conciliation on career progression recommenced in March 2022 but, again, the HSE and the Department of Health failed to commit to an agreement on the issue. I met a number of medical scientists in the audiovisual room on Tuesday after they came back from the WRC. They were asked to go back and they did so. Again, no agreement was put forward by the Department of Health or HSE.
I am disappointed that the Minister is not present and I know the Minister of State will give the reply he has been supplied with, but there is a real need for the Government to get the finger out and actually deal with the issues these workers are facing. It is a parity claim that the Department of Health has signed off on, and it should be dealt with immediately before the two-day strike next week.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. On behalf of the Minister, I acknowledge and pay tribute to the dedication, professionalism and commitment of all medical scientists throughout the country. Medical scientists play a valued and vital role within our health service. Their drive and dedication have been key components in our management of the Covid-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, they were at the front line of the response, providing a crucial role in testing and this has not gone unnoticed.
I am acutely aware of the ongoing and long-standing claim for pay parity between medical scientists and clinical biochemists. Health management has been engaging with the Medical Laboratory Scientist Association on these issues at the Workplace Relations Commission under the terms of the current public service agreement, Building Momentum. As the MLSA is part of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, it is bound by the terms of the agreement for the remainder of its lifetime.
Building Momentum includes the process of sectoral bargaining to deal with all outstanding claims across the public sector. The bargaining fund equates to 1% of basic pensionable pay for each bargaining unit set up under the agreement. Under Building Momentum, sectoral bargaining is the sole mechanism through which the MLSA can advance its claim. The MLSA requested that it be facilitated with its own bargaining unit in the sectoral bargaining process in order to progress its claim for pay parity. As such, the MLSA has at its disposal a fund equivalent to 1% of basic pay of all medical scientists. While this fund is insufficient to fully resolve its long-standing claims, it can partially resolve the claim and the remainder could be addressed in a future public service agreement, as per the terms of Building Momentum. As I have stated previously, the MLSA and health management have been engaged in talks over the last number of months with the aim of finding a way to advance the claim through this sectoral bargaining process. Several options were explored during these talks, but to date, none has satisfactorily resolved the claim in full, within the terms set out under Building Momentum.
The public service agreement group, comprising union and Civil Service representatives and an independent chair, met on 11 May to consider the MLSA's claim for pay parity. It recommended that the matter be immediately referred to the Workplace Relations Commission and that industrial peace be maintained in the meantime. Health management met with the MLSA under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission on 17 May but, unfortunately, no resolution was reached. While the MLSA agreed to engage at the Workplace Relations Commission, it did not lift its industrial action, which is a breach of Building Momentum. It is disappointing that the strike went ahead yesterday, despite it being precluded under the agreement. I recognise the significant disruption caused by yesterday's strike and the impact it has had on the health service. The parties continue to engage under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission. The Department of Health and the HSE remain open to engagement with the MLSA, noting that we are compelled to resolve any disputes in compliance with the provisions allowed for under Building Momentum.
I was hoping for a more positive response from the Minister of State. Building Momentum only provides for a fund of 1%, which means that the pay increase will be €1.45 million for the 1,800 medical scientists. That is 7% lower than the 8% committed to back in 2001 in respect of pay parity. Surely, there must be some way that the Department can think outside the box to deal with a legacy pay parity claim dating back 21 years. It is hugely unfair to force these workers to remain under the restrictions of the Building Momentum agreement. They have gone out of their way. Under the Croke Park Agreement, they saved the State €10 million. They have been working flat out. They are working well beyond their contracted 38-hour week and are filling vacancies at weekends. On the issue of the retention of medical scientists in labs, they are losing workers every day and are being forced to fill gaps. For patient safety in the long run, and as part of public health policy, the Government should be thinking outside the box. The only Department that does not seem to have attended these talks is the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The latter controls the purse strings of the Department of Health. If the Government is serious, it should think outside the box and immediately implement the 8% pay parity. The Minister of State that he is disappointed that the MLSA has initiated strike action. If he waiting 20 years for a pay increase that had been signed off, would he not think that he had the right to take strike action to make his point?
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. It was disappointing that the MLSA initiated strike action and that its vital role and presence in clinical settings across the country was suspended yesterday, causing disruption across the health service.
Its decision to strike yesterday was contrary to its commitment under Building Momentum, which states that parties to the agreement concur that industrial peace will be maintained within the lifetime of the agreement. The Department of Health is bound by Building Momentum, which clearly states that sectoral bargaining is the only mechanism for addressing outstanding claims within the lifetime of the agreement. I will take the Deputy's views back to the Department of Health. I assure the Deputy-----
-----that health management remains committed to engaging with the MLSA. I reiterate again how significant its presence is across the health service. We will continue to engage with the MLSA and make every effort to ensure that no further days of strike action take place in the coming weeks. I want to acknowledge the dedication, professionalism and commitment of all medical scientists throughout the country. I hope that the issue can be resolved. I will bring the Deputy's views back to the Department.