State consumer agency faces strike threat

THE Government’s National Consumer Agency is facing the threat of strike action just weeks after becoming an official body with tough new powers.

Dublin-based civil servants are unhappy over the agency’s decision to farm out much of the work of its consumer hotline to a private Cork firm Abtran.

The hotline, set up in late 2005 when the NCA was a shadow body, handles thousands of calls a month on day-to-day queries.

The Civil and Public Service Union (CPSU) has already balloted its members at the agency and got approval for industrial action over the decision.

Earlier this week the CPSU and National Consumer Agency (NCA) began talks at the Labour Relations Commission over the outsourcing row, so they could avert any strike action.

The row centres on civil servants employed by the NCA’s predecessor, the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs (ODCA). These civil servants now work for the NCA and man a hotline in Dublin for complex consumer queries where detailed advice on the law and rights is available.

In December, 2005, the NCA set up a separate hotline for basic consumer queries and handed the job to a private call centre in Cork.

Staff at the Cork base refer complex queries to the civil servants in Dublin but CPSU union leaders want one hotline staffed by full-time public servants.

Last night CPSU spokesman Eoin Ronayne said the quality of service to the public was suffering because the NCA had handed the hotline work over to a private company.

“The hotline is a good idea but it needs to be staffed by public servants who have the expertise,” he said.

“Workers at call centres tend to be on temporary contracts and work on different jobs. Without being disparaging, they’re a bit like battery hens.

“They have a list of frequently asked questions and can send out information to consumers but for anything complex they have to refer it to Dublin and that leads to delays.”

The CPSU said the NCA had failed to consult the union over the creation of the basic hotline so a successful ballot for industrial action was staged.

The union said the threat of action led the NCA to begin talks earlier this week at the Labour Relations Commission over the hotline. “We want to keep this hotline within the public sector to protect the interests of the public as well as our members,” said Mr Ronayne.

The NCA, which officially came into being on May 1, and the CPSU are set for further talks next week at the commission.

NCA acting chief executive Ann Fitzgerald said: “We are having discussions with the CPSU about our intention to consolidate the helpline operated by the former ODCA with the consumer helpline operated by Abtran in Cork.

“We consider that we can best assist consumers through centralising all call centre activities in a professional call centre operation.”

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