Belfast Telegraph

£2m bill for overtime at 'archaic' NI Water is slammed

By Chris Kilpatrick and Adrian Rutherford

Overtime payments account for a fifth of salaries paid to front line staff at crisis-hit NI Water, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Almost £2 million was handed to workers drafted in to cover emergencies outside normal hours in the last year.

The huge bill is the result of archaic working patterns at NI Water, which see most staff employed on basic shifts covering 8am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.

It means the State-owned company has to shell out on overtime to mop up emergencies which fall outside these hours. The practice, blasted as unfit for a modern company, came amid mounting anger over the deepening crisis.

Last night around 7,750 properties across three counties were still without water.

As the crisis entered another day:

  • Talks between NI Water and union officials dragged into the night with little sign of a break in the deadlock.
  • Senior management were accused of exploiting people's misery to force a deal.
  • Stormont's regional development committee called an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis.
  • It emerged infrastructure in the east has been modernised, and kept running by contractors, leaving the west to suffer.
  • Anger was turned on union leaders, amid claims they were holding NI Water to ransom.

The crisis centres on a dispute over changes to pensions, which has prompted industrial action by more than 1,000 NI Water staff.

They have engaged in a work-to-rule protest, with on-call and emergency services withdrawn, causing misery for thousands of customers. Some have resorted to melting snow and ferrying water from rivers in what they likened to Third World conditions.

The problems are exacerbated because most front line staff work between 8am and 6pm, Monday to Friday. The remaining 118 hours - accounting for over two-thirds of the week - are covered by overtime and on-call services.

Rates vary from plain time during the week to time-and-a-half or double time at the weekend.

NI Water confirmed that in the most recent financial year its salary bill for industrial - in other words front line - staff was £10,785,578.

Its overtime bill was £1,948,724 - around 18% of the basic salary.

Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott, whose Fermanagh/South Tyrone constituency has been hardest hit, said the working structure at NI Water was outdated and must change.

"Every company has to work shift patterns. You just have to look at the retail sector for example," he said.

"The retail sector has to stay open, so they have people on shift work. They would be on the same pay. The police is another example. Police officers do shift work for the same pay.

"The unions have a job to do, they have a role, but clearly it's at a stage where people are suffering."

Meanwhile, union leaders and bosses at NI Water both found themselves in the firing line as talks continued to strike a deal.

John Dallat, who sits on the DRD committee, said senior management at NI Water had little interest in reaching agreement.

"I get the impression that management is using the deteriorating situation to achieve an outcome," he said. He also questioned why NI Water had allowed the situation to reach this point.

"One of the attributes of good management is to ensure that stalemate situations don't emerge, and that resolutions are found," he added. "It is a cowardly way to conduct things where they simply allow the system to break down by showing no real evidence that they have an appetite to resolve the situation."

It came as committee chair Trevor Clarke lashed out at the unions, and warned against caving in to their demands.

"The current situation is bad, but we cannot be held to ransom by the unions," he said.

Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy and departmental officials are due before an emergency meeting of the DRD committee today. Yesterday Mr Kennedy said talks between unions and management must continue until the issue is "thrashed out and resolved".

NI Water chief executive Sara Venning said she understood customers' anger.

"We're willing to listen to any reasonable offer, but we've been given a very clear remit to find a resolution within executive pay policy," she said.

But Ryan McKinney from the Nipsa union warned it was prepared to take action for as "long as it takes", adding that workers had "every right to defend their pensions".

‘Since December 23, we’ve had a major incident regime in place’

Questions we asked NI Water and the company’s answers.

Q. Do all or the majority of Northern Ireland Water staff work shifts?

A. Staff mainly work within a band of hours covering 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday. Only a small number of staff do shifts.

Q. What are the typical overtime rates paid by NI Water?

A. Rates vary from plain time during the week to time-and-a-half or double time at the weekend.

Q. How much was spent on overtime by NI Water last year?

A. Non-industrial staff £655,741, (3% of the total), Total pay bill: £37,034,225. Industrial workers: £1,948,724 (18% of the total), Total pay bill: £17,320,549

Q. When was NI Water first made aware of potential industrial action?

A. NI Water was first informed of the trade union intention to ballot for industrial action at the end of November 2014.

Q. What contingency plans were put in place?

A. Since December 23, 2014 a full major incident regime has been in place and various NI Water teams across Northern Ireland have been deployed.

Q. On Monday NI Water said the problems with the network had been fixed. That night the number of households without water doubled to 9,000. What changed?

A. One of the water treatment works had a shutdown.

Q. Is NI Water considering bringing in outside agency staff to alleviate the crisis?

A. Due to legislation in place on bringing in outside agency staff to alleviate the current crisis, NIW cannot engage additional agency workers to substitute employees taking part in industrial action.

Q. Why doesn’t NI Water use private contractors to alleviate the situation?

A. Additional contractor resources have been supporting the alternative supply effort.

Q. Is this Mutual Aid Assistance?

A. NI Water sought to invoke mutual aid and assistance from water companies and local utilities but this was not available in the event of an industrial dispute.

Q. Why are the current problems only affecting the west of Northern Ireland?

A. Three Water Treatment Works had shutdowns and these plants are in the west of the province: Caugh Hill, Lough Bradan and Lough Macrory.

Q. This week why did NI Water chief executive Sara Venning say it was for the unions to ensure contingency plans? What was meant by this?

A. The comment was inrelation to the reinstatement of the Christmas Holiday

protocol, agreed for over the Christmas Holiday period, with trade unions to address critical issues that presented a risk to public health or vulnerable customers.

How crisis has deepened

July 2014: In line with the rest of the public sector, Northern Ireland Water makes proposals for changes to its pension scheme

December 2: Union members are balloted on whether to take industrial action over pension changes

December 16: It is announced that members of Nipsa, Unite and the GMB have voted for a work-to-rule and withdrawal of on-call services and overtime, beginning on December 22

December 18/19: Talks between trade unions and Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy end without agreement

December 22: Industrial action by more than 1,000 NI Water staff gets under way

December 23: An agreement is reached which means people will not be without water supply for more than 24 hours

January 9: Unions reject NI Water proposals aimed at resolving the dispute

January 12: About 10,000 homes in Fermanagh and Tyrone are left without water after a pump at a treatment plant breaks down

January 16: NI Water warns of more disruption to come

January 17/18: Situation reaches crisis point as several thousand homes lose water supply over the weekend. Some families, without water for up to six days, resort to melting snow and ferrying water from rivers

January 19: Talks between NI Water and union officials end for the day without agreement. By evening time up to 9,000 homes are without water

January 20: By midday 7,750 properties have no supply, as talks to end the dispute drag on

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