Gift Horses – Look very, very closely

 Sometimes, trade unions make mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes made by our NHS unions was support for Agenda for Change.

AFC was the new pay and conditions deal that was introduced in most health trusts in 2005 (with an official start date of October 2004). Members were promised huge pay increases – but mostly didn’t get them.

A fair proportion of our own members got pay cuts. The Union did a comprehensive survey of the outcomes for our members at so-called ‘Early Implementer sites’ – and then decided the findings were too scary to publish!

Most members also ended up with an increase in working hours. We’ve seen a steady ‘dumbing down’ of grades since the new system came in. We’ve got groups of members being picked off one by one – the first round of losers back in 2004/05, the members losing through changes to unsocial hours payments now, and the members who will almost certainly lose through cuts to on-call pay in a few months time.

Our members in Northern Ireland are currently in deep trouble. AFC is only now being implemented – years after it was done and dusted in England. In Northern Ireland, there’s a strange process going on that means telling NHS workers that they owe the Government a load of money and they have to pay it back!

First jobs are matched in a supposedly careful and scientific and fair process to decide how much money they’re worth – and then they go to ‘second matching panels’ which in some cases just arbitrarily slash the pay decided first time around. We’ve got members facing massive and immediate cuts in pay – hundreds of pounds a month, in some cases.

Then along comes the ‘Recovery of Overpayment Provision’. Members are told they have been overpaid since 1st October 2004 (because that’s when the big pay cuts should have applied), and that they therefore owe the Government a pile of money. Employers are now deducting this from pay packets without even bothering with the niceties of asking people. Health workers are facing real financial crisis. I’ve heard from one family expecting to lose their home.

Unite needs to pull its finger out and get this sorted – as does every other NI health union. The treatment of these NHS workers is an absolute disgrace. It’s time for the Union to send a clear and simple message of ‘No, we’re not having it’ – with a willingness to back this up with whatever action it takes.

There are wider lessons to be learned. AFC was sold to us as a great package that the Government was offering because they loved us to bits. What nonsense. We should have looked the gift horse in the mouth. Health workers – like all other workers – have only ever won improvements to pay and conditions by fighting for them. We should never kid ourselves that there’s an easy alternative.

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