Why are the 999 workers striking?

Call centres have deservedly achieved notorious reputations as places where managers seek to exert total control over workers. This often takes the form of bosses micro-managing the daily activities of workers, imposing unrealistic targets on staff in order to boost productivity and subjecting people to harsh disciplinary measures. Low pay, high staff turnover and no union rights are the norm in this sector.

Although they help to save lives on a daily basis, these are the conditions that Ireland’s 999 emergency call operators have been working under since Conduit/BT began delivering the service. The contract for delivering the ECAS was awarded to BT Ireland in 2009 by the Department of Communications and was valued at €55 million. BT then outsourced the work to Conduit Global.

CWU members working in the 999 service recently took two days of strike action in pursuit of a Living Wage and the right to collective union recognition. They were also demanding that managers treat them with a basic level of dignity and respect.

The #999Respect campaign began in late 2014 when 999 operators, employed by Conduit Global/BT, contacted the CWU to get help unionising their workplace. When the campaign began, 999 operators were paid only €10 per hour and were subjected to a harsh and petty regime of management. Workers were routinely suspended and dragged through traumatic disciplinary investigations for the most trivial of issues, creating a culture of fear.

Such was the level of disrespect with which Conduit/BT treated staff, management felt they could get away with introducing the now infamous ‘toilet policy’, which micromanaged how long 999 operators could spend in the bathroom. Staff were told that they faced disciplinary action if they spent more than 19 minutes in the bathroom during the course of a 12-hour shift. They were also ordered to report to management before and after using the toilet and were limited to seven minutes in the bathroom at any one time.

Given the routine and open contempt displayed by their bosses, it is hardly surprising that in January 84% of CWU members in the 999 service voted in favour of strike action. The members’ decision to strike came after 18 months of the CWU trying to engage with Conduit/BT. Every request by the union to meet and discuss the issues was ignored.

In November 2015, CWU members in the ECAS won a 10% pay rise after putting their bosses under intense pressure as a result of their organising campaign. This gave the workers confidence that they have the power to affect change in the workplace even under the auspices of a viciously anti-union employer. However, although the pay rise was welcomed, the 999 workers were still paid less than the Living Wage and we constantly seeing their workmates marched off the call centre floor and unnecessarily suspended. Their call for dignity and respect at work continued to be ignored.

The first strike was held in Navan on 25th February – the day before the general election. In order to protect this vital public service, members decided to only strike in Navan and allow the other two centres in Dublin and Ballyshannon to operate as normal. As a result of the strike action, an on-call allowance was introduced and workers who were suspended were allowed to return to work. However, despite being making a combined profit of around €50 million last year, bosses in Conduit/BT still refused to pay a Living Wage or recognise the CWU.

A second strike took place on 7th April to keep the pressure on the companies. In the days before the strike, Conduit/BT were invited to talks by the Workplace Relations Commission aimed at averting the strike. In a display of gross arrogance and irresponsibility, they refused to attend and the strike went ahead. CWU General Secretary, Steve Fitzpatrick described this as a display of “open contempt for their staff and the Irish State.” He said: “The double standards from BT/Conduit Global are appalling. On one hand, they are happy to reap the huge financial rewards they receive as a result of delivering a state contract. On the other hand, they refuse to respect the authority of this State when it comes to its industrial relations structures and their responsibility to treat their staff properly.”

On the back of the strike action, 999 workers were invited to meet with a cross party group of TDs to recount their stories. The meeting was arranged by Sinn Féin’s Peadar Tóibín and was attended by politicians from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, AAA-PBP as well as Independents. Following the meeting, Deputy Tóibín said that attendees at the meeting were “shocked at the oppressive nature of the working environment suffered by these workers”.

The CWU is now calling for the government to ensure that any company benefiting from a state contract should be subject to a social clause. This should require them to pay workers at least a Living Wage, honour collective bargaining rights and respect the industrial relations machinery of the state. The mistreatment of workers at the hands of Conduit/BT should not be allowed to happen again.