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James O’Keeffe’s mobile phone is ringing off the hook.
Journalists and trade union representatives are vying for his attention ahead of the Wednesday 15 February march on Dáil Éireann.
The national protest is in response to lengthy delays by the Department of Further and Higher Education in bringing an offer to adult education tutors after years of back and forth campaigning for improved conditions.
“We won’t be happy with any less than a public service contract, an incremental salary scale, pay parity for our post 2011 colleagues and recognition of prior service,” says O’Keeffe, one of the organisers of tutors for the City of Dublin Education and Training Board, resolutely.
He sits up in his chair, placing his elbows firmly on the table in front of him.
As an English language tutor and coordinator in Cabra and Finglas, O’Keeffe mostly works with those trying to learn English as a second language. “So I’m their first point of contact, really. I do assessments and placements.”
The courses are in demand. This year alone, he’s had over 800 inquiries, he says. His classes are QQI accredited, meaning students receive a state-certified award upon completion, but for O’Keeffe, it means significant extra effort to meet the rigorous requirements.
He’s paid to work 27 hours a week, he says, but, in reality, he does much more.
“I’d say for every two hours I teach, I would do an extra hour [unpaid],” he says.
For teaching, he’s only paid for the hours in front of students but, he says, there’s also the creation of course materials, lesson plans to suit individual groups and marking assessments, among other tasks.
As a coordinator, he’s answering all inquiries as they come in, evaluating incoming students’ proficiency and placing them in suitable classes.
“We’re all doing full-time jobs on part-time hours. It’s a full-time gig, definitely, without a shadow of a doubt,” he says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Further Education said “a proposal […] is currently under discussion between the Departments with a view to finalising the offer to the Unions at the earliest opportunity.”
Stress And Uncertainty
When O’Keeffe first started out as a tutor, 16 years ago, he was just grateful to have a job, he says.
“And I thought as well initially, ‘Oh, wow, this is this is a good hourly rate.’”
The hourly rate of pay for a tutor in the City of Dublin Education Training Board (CDETB) pre-2011 is €45.10, while entrants after 2011 get €40.59.
“But then it takes a while to realise, hang on a minute. This isn’t so great,” he says.
Being paid hourly means tutors like O’Keeffe aren’t paid for school holidays, Easter, Christmas and three months over summer. As a result, many tutors sign on to the dole, he says.
“It’s stressful every school break,” he says, “having to deal with social welfare.”
You’re also completely in the hands of individual social welfare officers, he says. Some are understanding and will allow you to sign on immediately, while others are more difficult.
“I got 320 quid or something but I’m off for three weeks.”
Adult education tutors are employed by Education Training Boards (ETBs), which are state bodies that oversee community colleges, institutes of further education, and the like.
Currently, there are 16 ETBs nationwide, who have the authority to set their own rates of pay and contract conditions.
For Frances Sullivan, the precarious nature of part-time tutor work was normalised, from her years prior working as a secondary-school teacher, on similar hourly-paid contracts.
“So I never got paid for Christmas and summer and stuff. People are always asking me, ‘How can I get used to this?’, but I’m actually so used to not getting paid for any breaks,” she says.
Once she was settled in the job teaching maths and science based in Crumlin College, she felt as though she couldn’t bring the issue of payment up. “It’s kinda taboo to talk about it,” she says.
She experienced major issues, as a result of her part-time contract last summer when her bank pulled out of the Irish market and she had to switch mortgage provider.
“They asked for three of my most recent payslips,” she said, but because she doesn’t get paid over the summer she couldn’t provide the documents and had to wait until the end of September once she was paid again.
Once she had her payslips, there were issues with the consistency of the total amount, she says, as her take-home pay per month could fluctuate.
The deadline for keeping the same interest rate on their mortgage was coming up, “It was so stressful,” she says. Sullivan and her partner eventually missed the deadline, but luckily they were able to resolve the issue.
“It was just so much hassle,” she says, “nobody should have to go through that.”
She’s still waiting for money back from the social welfare for last October mid-term and Christmas, she says.
“They’ve no idea why people are signing on for three weeks,” she says. “They ask you why aren’t you looking for work.”
Sullivan quit her job just last week. Once she discovered she was pregnant in August last year, she knew she needed more stability, she says.
“Honestly, I loved my job. I was saying goodbye last week and I was so upset. I would have loved to stay,” she says.
“There’s no pay rises”
Tutors are public sector workers, says O’Keeffe last Thursday. “We just want public sector contracts to reflect that.”
“If I was on an incremental salary scale, I’d be on considerably more money than I am now, you know,” he says, his hands stretched behind his head drawing attention to small silver earrings in both ears and a silver ring on his right hand.
“There’s no pay rises,” he says, with an exasperated tone.
“I’d be on 20 grand more than I’m on now,” he says, “if there were pay scales based on years of service.”
Beyond the hourly rate of pay, there’s also always uncertainty about how many hours tutors will get.
If students don’t turn up to a class, tutors get paid less, he says.
“Even though you’re available, and you’re present to work, and you’re contracted for two hours, you’re only supposed to claim for one hour of those hours if students don’t [turn up],” he says.
Ciarán Nugent, an economist at the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI), an Irish Congress of Trade Unions think-tank, says that precarity in employment “affects family formation, and all the big life steps that we make in terms of people trying to get two feet on the ground”.
“Financial insecurity can affect people’s health outcomes,” says Nugent, who also lectures in the Department of Applied Social Studies at Maynooth University.
“We have one of the highest incidences of low pay of any country in the EU, and we’ve some of the highest wage inequality in the EU and so the state has to step in […] to make sure the workers [can get by],” he says.
Nugent says the state has to make up the balance. It has to use taxes to supplement the minimum essential living standards of about 20 to 25 percent of workers, he says.
“The state ends up paying anyway,” he says. “The state ends up paying through HAP or things like that.”
A Lengthy Dispute
Adult education tutors have been in a longstanding dispute with the Department of Further and Higher Education to improve their working conditions.
Tutors from different parts of the country have organised on and off, says O’Keeffe, the tutor organiser.
Things began in earnest following a note from the chairman’s of the Labour Relations Commission, issued in 2015 in relation to the Lansdowne Road Agreement pay talks, which stated a willingness on behalf of the Department of Education to engage with workers on four key areas.
Two of the four issues – minimum allocation of hours attached to contracts of indefinite duration, meaning workers had a right to a base number of hours per year, and sick pay and paid leave in line with full-time staff – were subsequently won in the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) hearings, which concluded in 2019.
Despite this, not all workers get contracts of indefinite duration (CIDs) or minimum working hours, says O’Keeffe.
“We have a national WhatsApp group. There’s about 250 tutors on it, all around the country and yeah, some people are going, I never got [my CID or minimum hours].”
“The City of Dublin [CDETB] is pretty okay around CIDs, and allocation of hours. Others aren’t,” he says.
With no offer of public service contracts for around 3,500 tutors, the workers, represented by SIPTU and TUI, brought the Department of Further and Higher Education to the Labour Court in May 2020.
The Labour Court recommendations were that the department “identify the scale of cost it is now prepared to absorb and […] should formulate an offer within the parameters of that scale of cost.”
“So that’s where we are now,” says O’Keeffe, “they basically promised that there would be a proposal put on the table by [last] September.”
The offer, he says, is now with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DEPR), who must calculate how much it will cost the state. “So DEPR have had that since July of last year,” he says.
DEPR did not respond to a request for comment on when the tutors could expect a response.
Avril Tierney, a tutor in Finglas, says that the state is exploiting her and her peers.
“The work we do is important and fulfills so many roles in getting people who have been excluded back into education and often a stepping stone back to work,” she says.
Next week trade union representatives of SIPTU and TUI are expected to meet with TDs and senators, says Karl Byrne, a trade union organiser across the education sector with SIPTU.
Paul Murphy, a People Before Profit TD, thinks the government is dragging their feet because of the cost implications.
When he first started asking questions about the workers, he says, he was told that nothing could happen with Covid.
“But now we are almost three years on from the Labour Court recommendation and the government still hasn’t moved on it,” he says.
O’Keeffe, the tutor organiser, says he’s looking forward to the protest on Wednesday.
“They don’t want to give us anything. But I think they want to see how much of a campaign we can get together, you know, how organized these people can become.”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 16 February at 10.52am. Ciarán Nugent lectures in the Department of Applied Social Studies, not Economics, at Maynooth University. Apologies for the error.]