Pressure Building: Water Workers And The Water Referendum

DLR CC Water Services Van

Water Workers from around Ireland have been organising protests to highlight their issues: chiefly the need for a Water Referendum now and a vote on the new Service Level Agreement (SLA) with Irish Water, to start in January 2023.

The issues aren’t all in internal to their treatment in their union. They aren’t on how the referendum will be worded or in which section the amendment will go.

As the government continues its push to Irish Water/Uisce Éireann, water workers in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and South Dublin County Councils are subject to the real effects of the privatisation policies forced on water workers by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, and the Green Party.

We spoke to some of them this week as they prepared to join protesters from Cork, Kilkenny, Carlow, Waterford and Tipperary Limerick and Donegal. Water workers will be speak from the Cost of Living Coalition platform tomorrow. They all seem to share the same issues.

‘Between Water and Drainage workers for the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council we have 50 staff. But people leave. They don’t like what they see coming.

‘We aren’t getting replacement staff. It’s a serious issue. We were supposed have 8 staff in this section. We were at 6. Now we’re down to 4. The Council won’t hire in the staff we need. They say it’s up to Irish Water. Irish Water says it’s the Council. We’re piggy in the middle.’ This worker’s story is almost identical to the story from our interview with Carlow County Council’s water workers.

Another worker in South Dublin County Council said ‘We’re happy to keep doing what we’re doing. The councils have been running this for 170 years since John Gray set it up. But anyone who knows the water system can see that Irish Water is not designed to work. It’s just going to extract money. We can keep generating money from non-domestic and then focus on updating and maintaining the systems we have with central government funding where needed. The Irish Water model is going to be a disaster!

‘There’s a bonus-led culture where you compete and don’t cooperate with other counties and areas. Nobody wants that. We shouldn’t be competing. We should be providing the best quality public service. It’s like, “would you not just get on with it?”‘

Pressure Building
Workers note time and again that they are happy to stay within the current structures but that workers and infrastructure is being run down. These need proper management and funding not further pressures. The need is for responsive funding, real staffing and respect and security for the work that is being done.

A worker from Dún Laoghaire Rathdown noted areas where new housing estates had been put in. He said ‘the same value of work is being done, but the county is changing.’

‘In the greater Dún Laoghaire area we have 30,000 more people living here. That’s a lot more water. There’s the 50,000 Ukrainians who we’re hosting in counties around Ireland. And yet now we have fewer staff,’ he said.

‘This is labour-intensive physical work. You need staff. There’s no response from Council or Uisce Éireann. No serious real response to what we need. What are we supposed to do? As the population increases how to we build?’

The Future of Water
Thomas Pringle, Eoin Ó Brion, and Paul Murphy have all made contributions on the side of the workers in the Dáil. People looking for a referendum date. They know it needs to be a meaningful referendum – not one that allows a backdoor for privatisation. As Pringle said last week:

“We don’t want to simply enshrine Irish Water (or Uisce Éireann) in the Constitution. We need to ensure the following wording is used: ‘The Government shall be collectively responsible for the protection, management and maintenance of the public water system. The Government shall ensure in the public interest that this resource remains in public ownership and management.

“Anything less will allow privatisation through the back door,” the deputy said. Deputy Pringle said the amendment must also be placed in the governance section of the Constitution.

Deputy Pringle concluded: “Minister, water workers and water activists across this country are watching to make sure this is not a symbolic or tokenistic measure. Only a meaningful referendum to protect our water system is satisfactory.” [ ]

People Before Profit concur.

We also absolutely support the workers in their campaign and we will be with them 100%. We look forward to marching with them again on the National Cost of Living Coalition March tomorrow in Dublin at 2:30 Parnell Square.

Council Water Service Workers march Kilkenny September 2023 Ireland Irish Water SIPTU Building in background
Council Water Service Workers march Kilkenny September 2023. SIPTU Building in background. Banner reads Our Union, Our Water, Our Vote. Referendum Now!