Northern Ireland civil servants are staging a one-day strike on Friday over their pay and working conditions, which could affect some public services.
The strike follows a vote by members of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (Nipsa) trade union.
Nipsa said its members were angered after receiving a below-inflation pay rise for the ninth year in a row.
Stormont’s Department of Finance said the rise was “fair in the context of the challenging financial environment”.
How much disruption is expected?
It is very difficult to predict how the strike will affect public services as staff are not obliged to tell their employer in advance if they are taking part in the strike.
BBC News NI contacted a number of government departments on Thursday afternoon and most gave an identical response, saying they were “seeking to ensure essential services continue to be delivered during the planned industrial action”.
However, the Department for Communities confirmed that people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) have been “excused” from having to sign on during Friday’s strike.
Its spokeswoman also confirmed:
- All benefit payments will be “issued as normal”
- All digital benefit services are “available as usual”
- However, benefit offices’ telephone lines “may be busier than normal”
NICS is one of Northern Ireland’s largest employers, with more than 23,000 permanent staff who work across a range of sectors including road maintenance; vehicle testing; jobs and benefits offices; courts and prisons.
One public service which has been under particular pressure is MOT testing, with motorists already facing lengthy delays for an appointment.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Infrastructure said they were “doing all that we can to ensure that test centres will open as normal and disruption to our customers minimised”.
“Our advice is that customers with appointments should attend as scheduled.”
The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service said on Thursday that it “aims to ensure that the full range services will be available” during Friday’s strike.
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Prison Service said it “will monitor, but does not anticipate any major disruption in our prisons”.
Why are civil servants striking over pay?
Most civil servants are set to receive a 1.25% pay rise for the 2018/2019 financial year, but Nipsa points out this will not keep up with the cost of living as inflation is running at 2%.
The very lowest paid civil servants are in line for a larger pay rise of 3%.
“The public will be shocked to learn that the lowest paid civil servants had to get a slightly higher pay increase – not because of the generosity of the employer – but to ensure that civil servants were not paid below the national minimum wage,” Nipsa’s General Secretary Alison Millar said.
The union has claimed that more than half (53%) of civil servants earn less than the average wage in Northern Ireland.
It said many of its members “now rely on second jobs and working tax credits to make ends meet”.
Almost 6,000 Nipsa members took part in a ballot for industrial action and more than two-thirds of them (68.5%) voted to strike.
Ms Millar said it was “not a decision our members took lightly”, but after years of below-inflation pay rises, many felt “enough is enough”.
She said government employees “who have kept the civil service running” in the absence of devolved government at Stormont must be “appropriately rewarded”.
NICS has been tasked with the day-to-day running of public services since the DUP/Sinn Féin-led coalition government collapsed over two and a half years ago.
What has the employer said?
A spokesperson for Stormont’s Department of Finance (DoF) said the pay award was “fair in the context of the challenging financial environment the Northern Ireland Civil Service is operating in with finite resources available and increasing pressures”.
The cost of the disputed pay rise currently stands at about £16.4m, which is just over 2% of the annual NICS pay bill.
“DoF is keen to tackle low pay in the NICS and so the pay award includes a larger increase of 3% at administrative assistant and analogous grades, with all others receiving a 1.25% uplift as well as any progression payment due,” the department said.
“The 3% award was not required by minimum wage legislation,” it added.
Even though the 2018 pay offer has been rejected by trade unions, DoF said steps were being taken to “implement” the rise, and it would be paid to NICS staff on 29 July.
Read more: www.bbc.co.uk