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'People are going to lie in their beds and starve to death' during carer strikes, warns campaigner

There is a very real fear in the disability community someone might die as strike action threatens vital supports, a leading advocate has warned.

Leigh Gath said she fully supports the health workers, and her frustration is focused on the Government for not acting on pay-restoration requests dating back to the recession.

This week, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said thousands of health and community workers would go on strike of indefinite duration from October 17 asking for restoration of pay equality with their HSE peers.

Ms Gath, a thalidomide survivor and former HSE Confidential Recipient, said: “People dying is a real fear in the disability community, it is a real real fear now.” 

She said this was being discussed among the thousands of people with significant disabilities.

“If you don’t have any staff coming in at 8 o’ clock in the morning to get you out of bed or give you a drink of water, or even give you something to eat , people are going to lie in their beds and starve to death,” she warned.

Staff who travel between people’s homes and others who work in residential units are among those taking action, including care assistants, community workers, nurses and other frontline staff. 

Emergency cover

Emergency cover will be provided.

“People will not be able to get out of bed, not be able to turn in bed — sometimes a couple of times a night — and not be able to go the toilet or shower,” Ms Gath said.

“People will not have the ability to contact anyone for help. Day services will close and those living with elderly parents or in residential or alone could have to be hospitalised in order to get basic needs taken care of.” 

I don’t think the staff want to do this, but they are being backed into a corner, this has been going on since 2008.” 

Section 39 voluntary agencies are part-funded by the State. Those taking action include the Irish Wheelchair Association, branches of Enable Ireland including in Cork and Tralee, as well as Cheshire Ireland and Family Resources Centres.

Padraig Hanafin, public affairs and research administrator with Rehab and board member of the Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI), said supports from a personal assistant are central to his life. 

"This was a move that would change my life completely and give me a sense of a normal life in the community," he said of the Cork Centre for Independent Living. 

"Without this I would not have managed to complete my third-level education and I doubt I would be in employment right now.

However he now sees voluntary agencies losing staff to the HSE, he told a DFI Budget 2024 event on Thursday.

“The truth is that the requirements of each of these organisations are the same,” he said.

Staff members are required to have the same qualifications and training. The needs of the service users are by in large the same. But the pay is not equal.” 

The Department of Health has said a recently-offered 5% pay increase was not accepted by unions. The department said community and voluntary sector agencies are privately owned and operated, with employee terms and conditions not set by the state. 

“The Government is not the employer for any of these staff,” it added.