The Government wants local authority water services personnel to transfer to Irish Water by the end of 2022 as part of a new framework for the delivery of water services, according to a Policy Paper approved by the Cabinet earlier today.
However, this evening SIPTU has warned that its members impacted by the proposed transfer are prepared to take industrial action to resist any attempt to force them to transfer to the Irish Water utility without their consent.
Unions have consistently raised concerns about the Irish Water integration plan, amid fears that the 3,000 local authority staff would lose their public service status, job security, terms and conditions, and that the utility might ultimately be privatised.
At present, water services are delivered on behalf of Irish Water under Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with local authorities.
However, the Government argues that the current arrangements "are now impeding further planning, development and improvement of water services".
It notes that risks are being introduced to the assured delivery of water and waste water services because there is a lack of connection between Irish Water's legal responsibility for water services and their delivery by local authorities.
"Despite owning the water services assets and paying for service delivery through the SLAs, Irish Water does not have direct control over the majority of service staff or water infrastructural assets. This separation between responsibility and control needs to be addressed as a priority," the Government believes.
The Policy Paper entitled "Irish Water - Towards a national, publicly owned, regulated water services utility" anticipates that Irish Water will separate from the Ervia Group during 2023, but will be retained as a national publicly-owned, regulated water services utility.
It notes that the integration process will give rise to significant organisational change for local authorities and their staff, and describes progress in talks at the Workplace Relations Commission as "slow".
The document acknowledges that a stable operational framework for the delivery of water services to replace the SLAs "must necessarily involve securing an agreement through WRC structures addressing the stated concerns of workers regarding their status as public sector workers, pay models and terms & conditions, etc".
It gives assurances that there will be jobs in Irish Water for all staff currently employed within the water sector, "and in relation to the existing terms and conditions of staff being respected".
The Government also pledges to engage separately with unions on issues of concern outside the WRC scope, but notes that these matters are ultimately determined through the political system "independently of any industrial relations matters affecting water services staff".
Today, the Minister for Housing Local Government and Heritage Darragh O'Brien met the unions for a briefing on the Policy Paper which was approved by cabinet earlier.
He described the Policy Paper as "an important step forward in the Government's drive to achieve a world class public water services system" but acknowledged there was some way to go to ensure water and waste networks and broader environmental management systems were fit for purpose.
He said he wanted Irish Water to become "the workplace of choice for local authority staff, and insisted that the Government would not leave local authorities with "unsupported financial liabilities" as a result of the transformation programme.
However, unions remain unconvinced.
This evening, SIPTU Public Administration and Community Division Organiser Adrian Kane confirmed: "At the meeting, we informed the Minister that SIPTU members will not accept any imposed solution on the future provision of water services nor will we accept a situation whereby staff of local authorities are forcibly transferred to Irish Water.
"We emphasised that any proposed changes can only be achieved by agreement and that any deviation from the normal rules of engagement will result in industrial action," he said.
He said unions had reminded the Minister that there were a number of significant, outstanding industrial relations issues regarding the staff in question that needed to be resolved before any negotiation process on the Government's proposals can proceed.
SIPTU said that in his response, the Minister had accepted the unions' position that solutions could not be imposed, and that timelines as provided for in the Policy Paper were intended to focus discussions, rather than being "rigid dates for the implementation of pre-determined outcomes".
The Programme for Government includes a commitment to retain Irish Water in public ownership as a national, standalone regulated utility, with further commitments to deliver sufficient funding for the necessary investment in drinking and waste water infrastructure.