Over 60 SIPTU catering and laundry staff at Mount Carmel in Dublin began an official strike this morning.

They are protesting at the outsourcing of their jobs to a private company which will, they say, lead to lower pay and poorer conditions in the long term.

SIPTU Health Organiser Paul Bell said the union was available to talks at the Labour Relations Commission. The union has also applied for an all-out Irish Congress of Trade Unions picket.

He strongly criticised a statement by Mount Carmel management which alleged that the strike was unofficial, when it had full union sanction.

Mr Bell questioned other facts alleged by management, such as the claim that SIPTU members would be employed by Campbell Catering and enjoy better terms and conditions than at present.

'Campbell Catering was never mentioned in talks. The only employer ever mentioned to us was Aramark,' he said, 'and the Transfer of Undertakings procedures cannot protect the long term pay and conditions of our members once they have changed employments.'

Staff received a letter yesterday informing them of management's plan to transfer them to an outside catering company tomorrow.

The catering staff were to be re-employed by the Aramark catering company with the same pay and conditions that they currently enjoy with the hospital.

But a SIPTU spokesperson said if the Mount Carmel Medical Group succeeded in outsourcing the catering staff in this manner, it would set a precedent for other employers to do the same.

Agency staff were carrying out the catering duties at the hospital today so there was no disruption to patients.

In a statement, the hospital management said it remained open for discussions with staff over its plans to outsource the catering division.