Longer hours for bank staff

Staff at the Central Bank of Ireland have agreed to work longer hours, bringing them in line with current working hours in the public sector. The deal is regarded as one of the successes of the Haddington Road Agreement which has cut public service wages for the third time in five years in return for a government commitment to make no compulsory redundancies. This deal may be viewed as a template for managing change across a large and complex unionised public sector organisation.

Background

The 2013–2016 Haddington Road Agreement sets out a range of wage reductions for up to 287,000 public service employees in return for a government commitment to make no compulsory redundancies.

In November 2013, around 1,400 members of Unite the Union (Unite) at the Central Bank of Ireland voted by a majority of 78% in favour of the agreement. It includes what an independent three-person tribunal described as the ‘difficult’ and ‘contentious’ issue of increased working hours at the bank to bring them into line with the rest of the public sector. The independent tribunal played a critical role in the negotiations. It was chaired by Martin King of Ampersand Consulting who was assisted by Larry Broderick, General Secretary of the Irish Bank Officials Association (IBOA), and independent industrial relations consultant Ultan Courtney.

The Haddington Road Agreement also includes trade union commitments to engage with workplace change and staff redeployment.

The Central Bank, although formally independent of the state, tends to apply public service agreements in relation to its own staff. It complied with the first wave of austerity provisions set out in the Croke Park Agreement. The Haddington Road Agreement sets out another phase of wage cuts and freezes in the public sector.

It is estimated that of the 1,400 or so Central Bank staff covered by collective bargaining, 41% had contracts for a 32.5-hour week and 58% worked 35 hours or more. The Haddington Road Agreement states that public servants working 35 hours or less a week (including rest breaks) will now work a minimum of 37 hours. Those already contracted to work more than 35 hours and less than 39 hours (including rest breaks) will work a minimum of 39 hours.

Role of the tribunal

Crucially, the Central Bank/Unite agreement also provides for the restoration of delayed incremental payments for bank staff. Apart from the specific issue of working hours, the agreement includes detailed provisions for voluntary severance, fixed-term contracts, unpaid leave, a career break scheme, remote working and sick pay. These items are separate to the wider Haddington Road Agreement, but in each instance, the ‘local’ Central Bank/Unite agreement does not breach any of the core tenets of public policy laid down in the Haddington Road Agreement.

The Central Bank/Unite agreement is to be registered as a collective agreement with the Labour Relations Commission (LRC). This is in accordance with the terms of the Haddington Road Agreement, under which management and unions in each sector register their ‘sectoral’ agreements with the LRC.

Securing agreement in a ballot of union members meant that the management of the Central Bank was able to avoid having to impose the new working hours through the application of emergency legislation – the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act (354 KB PDF). This allows the government to cut pay and change the conditions of public service staff in an emergency financial situation. The period following the current crisis is regarded as such an ‘emergency’.

However, as in the case of the Croke Park and Haddington Road agreements, government departments and various public service agencies have sought to reach agreement by negotiation and trade union ballots. The emergency legislation has only been used once, in 2010, to impose wage cuts.

Commentary

How the Central Bank/Unite agreement was achieved may be regarded by industrial relations observers in Ireland as a sort of template for the management and negotiation of change across a large and complex unionised public sector organisation.

It was seen by policymakers as important that working hours in the Central Bank, in the wake of the financial crisis, should match public service practice generally, even though the Central Bank is not automatically covered by agreements such as the Haddington Road Agreement.

The use of the independent tribunal to assist in the negotiation of the agreement helped to avert any wider negative publicity that a dispute would have attracted. As the independent weekly Industrial Relations News commented: ‘The success of this process may not secure the bank and Unite members much in the way of media attention, but that in itself will be regarded as an indicator of its success.’

Brian Sheehan, IRN Publishing

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