Belfast Telegraph

Water unions' action won't wash

Editor's Viewpoint

The dispute between the unions and management of Northern Ireland Water is creating intolerable conditions for thousands of householders at the worst possible time of the year. It is clear that consumer anger is growing and the unions' overtime ban is no longer tenable.

That is not to say that staff concerns over changes to their pensions should be discarded. Clearly there should be on-going discussions between the two sides on this, although NI Water staff must also accept that the pension changes are taking place right across the public sector and are not directed solely at them.

But creating hardship for consumers is not the way to go about solving the dispute. The unions should realise that leaving families, the elderly and children without water is a self-defeating strategy.

However, many people remain puzzled at how a simple overtime ban can result in such widespread disruption to supplies. This is not a strike by staff, yet the effects are as devastating. Why? Is the infrastructure so fragile that it requires round-the-clock maintenance, or is there also a management problem?

The chief executive of the company says that she and other managers have been working to mitigate the effects of the dispute, but their efforts do not appear to be bearing fruit. Admittedly, the company has been attempting to deliver tanks or bottles of water to affected areas, but should that be necessary?

Another recurring question is why the same areas - chiefly Fermanagh and Tyrone and, occasionally, parts of Londonderry - are the only ones to be affected? On the law of averages breakdowns in water treatment plants should happen throughout the province, yet that does not seem to be the case.

NI Water has had a chequered history and consumers remember its inadequate response to the crisis caused by the Arctic conditions in 2009 when burst mains left thousands of households and businesses without water.

Its performance has been better in recent times, yet that is little solace to the thousands of families who have been left without water at various times in the past week. It is scandalous that some people have had to scrape up buckets of snow to melt so that they could have water for toilets or to boil for household use.

The unions should now abandon their industrial action. As well, the company's performance in recent days should be examined in detail once the emergency is resolved to see if it could have done better.

Belfast Telegraph

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