Economy Minister Diane Dodds has not met with trade union officials representing hundreds of further education lecturers involved in a long-running pay dispute, it has emerged.
Staff represented by the University and College Union held a one-day strike last month over pay and workloads, with the UCU stating members in further education colleges had only received a 3.8% pay increase since 2013/14.
Mrs Dodds said the UCU previously rejected a pay offer amounting to a 7% salary increase.
There are around 70,000 students attending further education colleges in Northern Ireland, according to figures from the Department for the Economy (DfE).
Ms Dodds was recently asked via a written Assembly question if she had met with UCU representatives at any point from January 2020 to March this year. She said she has not, but officials with the Further Education Division of her department had held four meetings with the UCU.
However, her response to a question tabled by People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll revealed these meetings had concerned Covid arrangements.
The UCU's Northern Ireland official, Katharine Clarke, said the union is concerned that Mrs Dodds "consistently refused" to meet with representatives to resolve the pay dispute.
"The four meetings the UCU has had with DfE officials between the period January 2020 to March 2021 concerned health and safety arrangements in the colleges during the pandemic," she said.
"Neither the Minister nor her officials have had any conversation with the UCU about the dispute, despite repeated requests to do so. They have shown no willingness whatsoever to engage with UCU to bring industrial action in the sector to an end.
"The Minister seems to be in denial about the funding relationship between herself, DfE and the colleges. Mrs Dodds has evaded meetings with UCU on the basis that she is not directly involved in the negotiations between the employers and the trade unions. However, her department determines the overall amount of resource allocated to the colleges as employers.
"Unless Minister Dodds agrees to increase college budgets, the employers have no ability to improve the pay offer from within the existing allocations."
Mr Carroll accused Mrs Dodds of showing "contempt" for those she has responsibility for.
"All the platitudes in the world about 'learning from Covid' are merely empty words if Ministers don't change their approach and start to meet with unions and discuss the issues that their members face," he said.
In her response to Mr Carroll, Mrs Dodds had referred to meetings last June about the "safe resumption of on-site educational provision and related provision in further education colleges and Non-Statutory Contractors" .
She also said her officials had been present at other meetings planning for the safe resumption of college education, and that the UCU had withdrawn from further meetings.
A DfE spokesperson said the Minister had been asked "to detail the number of times she, or her officials, met with the University and College Union from January 2020 to March 2021".
They added that the Assembly question "is not in relation to the pay negotiations and the response provided did not refer to the pay negotiations, nor should that be inferred".