Irish trade union movement supports tripartite approach to decision making on future of pharmacy

The ICTU has adopted a proposal from the PDA that states that decision making by the government regarding future pharmacy policy and service design should be made through tripartite structures, with non-employer pharmacists represented by their trade union who are able to provide a more comprehensive, integrated point of view to complement that presented by employers.

Fri 12th November 2021 The PDA

Just as pharmacists achieve more by working together as the PDA, trade unions achieve even more by working together as federations. In January 2021, the PDA became part of the Irish Congress of Trade Union and in November the union participated in the biennial delegate conference which was held in Belfast (in hybrid form with some attendees online).

The ICTU is the largest civic society organisation in Ireland and is recognised as the main voice of working people that engage with governments on both sides of the border. The leaders of all five of the major Northern Irish political parties spoke at the conference outlining their respective manifestos for workers. Events at the conference occupied the national media headlines while the event took place.

Each affiliated trade union attending the conference can propose subjects for consideration and if passed through the debating process, such proposals become ICTU policy. Many issues such as the economy or tackling discrimination may be of equal concern to all trade unions, while other issues may relate to specific sectors or professions. However, each issue is debated by the entire ICTU and a democratic decision is reached to agree on the policy.

The PDA motion was as follows:

The pharmacist workforce has traditionally and historically been a non unionised workforce. Representation has been by managers, business owners and executives. But now more than ever, and as Bob Dylan wrote and sang, the times they are a-changing and by my as a PDA National official, presence here, bringing this motion to congress, we could even say – times, they have a-changed.

There was a time where  the majority of pharmacists owned their own pharmacy, but today the vast majority are either employed or locum.  They are 75% female.

Congress recognises that too often today, these pharmacists are tethered to busy dispensaries, treated as checking devices, placed under immense pressure to fulfil prescription volume and address patient requirements at the interface between healthcare services and the wider public  population – right at the Coalface.

They juggle this with administrative burden.  They are not offered  opportunity to further themselves within their career. Pharmacists can become the scape goats for errors, poor practice and lapses in best patient care. They risk disciplinary action or being reported to the professional regulator by their own employment body when things go wrong, becoming personally culpable and potentially criminally prosecuted. It is no surprise that there are now concerns that not enough new entrants will want to join this profession based on the 2020 workforce review.

It is concerning d that ideas mooted to address this problem include a pharmacy apprentice scheme, bypassing the traditional university route into the profession, and giving  new graduates the independent prescribing qualifications. However, this does not seek to resolve nor adequately address the growing discontent within the workforce, and poor working conditions, terms and progression. This programme seeks to absorb the growing demand by increasing the pool of professionals for employers to draw from, at a potentially lower cost. There are no accompanying plans to build an environment for apprentices to learn in.

PDA Union is securing recognition agreements for GP federation based pharmacists, and those who work with Boots, and are giving an independent voice to pharmacist workforces within each employer.  This voice is vital for correcting the imbalance of the bygone age when pharmacists were also the proprietor of the pharmacy. Employer bodies have been allowed to adopt a dual representative role – both campaigning for increased investment in their business, and the terms of their own contracts with government, while also claiming to represent the workforce.

This as we know represents a conflict of interest, stacked strongly in favour of the employer’s own interest.  Congress calls upon the department of health, the health and social care board, and all integrated care structures to ensure policy and service design is made through tripartite structures, with non-employer pharmacists represented by their trade union able to provide a more comprehensive, integrated point of view to complement that presented by employers.

Congress believes there are a number of critical items to be introduced via our collective bargaining vehicle:

  • Time for ongoing professional development
  • Service design outside of business models
  • Protected time to engage in local area networks
  • Protected time to engage with local community groups

The monopoly on professional opinion must be disrupted.

The motion was formally proposed by the PDA and seconded by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), with NUJ Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley saying:

“The right to trade union representation is a fundamental right which we must defend in every sector. That voice should not be mediated or compromised by conflicts of interest. This motion seeks to ensure that the interest of employees in a sector are directly represented, that they have their voice heard and are consulted.

“Pharmacy staff deserve the right to direct engagement in discussions and negotiations. The face of the sector has changed beyond recognition and the PDA motion demands that the industrial relations framework reflects that change. Employers should not have exclusive access to negotiations with government and agencies on industrial relations and professional issues which have direct and often profound impact on pharmacists.”

The motion was passed unanimously and is therefore adopted as policy by the ICTU. The formal support of the ICTU with their influence strengthens the PDA’s call for the voice of pharmacists to be heard alongside the voice of pharmacy employers. The PDA believes that in the north of Ireland and throughout the UK, government and other decision-makers must no longer listen solely to pharmacy owners, leads or trust chief executives. The voice of the frontline pharmacists must be heard.

Many of the topics raised by other unions – either private or public sector – also resonated with themes consistently raised by the pharmacist workforce. With examples such as concerns over IR35 by freelance journalists, the nurses call for safer working conditions, and the shop workers motion to stop abuse, violence and threats in retail premises. The PDA supported these and many other motions which could benefit pharmacists.

Una O’Farrell summed up her experience, representing pharmacists at the conference, by saying: “Pharmacists definitely belong at the heart of the trade union movement and affiliating to the ICTU was a fantastic move for the PDA. I look forward to working with colleagues across the movement to improve working conditions for all working people. Even where an issue may not directly impact pharmacists, we all benefit if society is fairer, safer, sustainable and more inclusive.”

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