Warning of ‘public health emergency’ as water workers start industrial action

Warning that householders could end up boiling water to keep it safe
Warning that householders could end up boiling water to keep it safe

Householders could end up having to boil their tap water to make it safe due to industrial action starting on Monday.

Those are the claims of one trade union, as talks to head off industrial action by water workers on Sunday failed.

Three unions will stage an indefinite period of work-to-rule at NI Water from 8am onwards, in response to changes to employees’ pensions.

Ryan McKinney, assistant secretary of Nipsa, said out of roughly 1,200 staff, he expects about 1,000 to be on strike, and as time wears on it could lead to nothing short of a “public health emergency”.

The action means staff will not do overtime or be on-call to fix problems, which may lead to a decline in water quality.

In short, it could spell “either no running water or unsafe running water, within a few days... There will simply not be the staff in NI Water prepared to resolve that because they feel they’ve reached the end of the line with their employer”.

He added: “There’s every chance there’ll be ‘boil notices’; it means people will have to boil their water before they use it.”

One source also suggested the Red Cross could even end up assisting with delivery of water.

NI Water itself said last night that it would be doing everything it can to mitigate the effects of the action.

Mr McKinney said there will be some emergency cover, but only in very serious cases such as keeping a hospital connected.

The action is over plans by the company to increase workers’ pension contributions (the amount of their salary they pay into their pension pots) to up to 7.6 per cent.

Currently, depending on which type of pension they have, workers pay about 1.5 per cent or 3.5 per cent.

Meanwhile, unions say the company wants to cut the contributions it makes from about 22 per cent of their salary to about 20 per cent.

NI Water last night reiterated the message issued by its CEO Sara Venning on Friday, saying “it is not within the gift of NI Water to defer pension reform”.

She added: “All that will be achieved by undertaking industrial action at this time is to cause distress and potential hardship to the public”.

Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy also reissued a statement in which he said: “The same changes have already taken place in the Civil Service and other public sector organisations...

“In an attempt to avert strike action, I have offered to bring any agreement on pensions between the unions and NIW management to the Executive in January.”