A shocking tale…how TD’s often abuse the rights of their own staff
A TD’s office is a busy place. The role of the parliamentary assistant is central to its operation. A TD relies on the person in this role to keep things going, deal with queries and run the show behind the scenes. However, the story of these assistants is not always a pretty one.
Unfortunately most are selected from party membership ranks or people in local communities and this means that if they speak out it is seen as disloyal and negative. Over the last few months I spoke to over 20 people who either are now, or were, parliamentary assistants and what they told me was troubling. However, despite my best efforts none of them were willing to talk publicly about the issues. It would either cause friction in a local community, falling out with other friends, ruin their own budding political opportunities or they just didn’t want to give opponents the chance to say something negative.
In an age when we talk about whistleblowers the cloak of silence that covers parliamentary assistants is worrying, because right at the heart of our democracy is a group that feels talking out about some serious injustices would only mean severe personal repercussions for them.
TD’s can hire and fire these assistants at will. They are given no job protection whatsoever. Technically, if the TD is in a party it is the party that is the employer but in reality the TD has complete control. A number of assistants told me of situations where a party told them outright that they could not bring any grievance to them and it was a matter only for their TD. Over the years several Assistants have been dismissed from roles with often only the flimsiest of excuses. For example one TD is reported to have dismissed an assistant suddenly and with little explanation only to replace them with a partner some weeks later. Another story was told of how a TD told an assistant they would no longer be needed as the office didn’t require it and then put a family member in the role.
Anyone who follows politics knows that it is a 24 hr job. Stories can break at any time and situations often demand work outside of office hours. Several assistants told me of difficulties for some in getting overtime payments paid. Some TD’s take the view that the overtime is not necessary but at the same time if the work is not done it will be the fault of the Assistant. Therefore several are forced to work overtime and not claim for it. This in turn helps TD’s to keep the expense level down.
During the recent economic crisis the amount of available overtime for assistants was cut in an effort to reduce costs. This might seem reasonable until it turns out that the only discussion that took place on it was between the Oireachtas and the parliamentary Chairpersons…or TD’s. This means that the Assistants had their hours cut but without any input or discussion, instead their employers made the deal.
It would also appear that the problems have been getting worse due to the high turnover of staff after the 2011 general election. An Assistant who has been in the job for many years may have a handle on their entitlements but the huge volume of new assistants, right across all parties, are struggling to come to terms with their rights and nobody is too eager to tell them. A major weakness in the system is the adversarial nature of politics, as the assistants find themselves divided and pitted against other party staff. This fear and lack of trust ensures that they never come together on the issue.
Several Assistants were at pains to point out that a large number of TD’s are very good and fair employers but there are some who are abusing the system and the absolute power it gives them over assistants and this leaves everyone with a fear for how things work.
One former Assistant spoke to me of how they applied for the job and agreed the work to be carried out. However, once in the job the role changed completely from what was described and involved several tasks that they had been told were clearly not part of their work. This individual had left another good role to take up this position based on the undestanding the TD had given them about the opportunity. The role involved nothing of the work and experience that the person wanted and had been agreed and when they approached the TD about this saying the current tasks would not help them in their career at all and that they wished to do more of the research they were hired for, the TD replied ‘well these are the tasks I need done and that’s that, if you want to say you did other stuff on your CV that’s fine I don’t mind, but this is the way it is.’
So with people losing jobs, no rights as regards hours and overtime, surely there is an issue for Unions here? Well that was my first port of call. Most seem to be members of SIPTU. I contacted SIPTU a number of times and left messages but none of my calls were returned. In the meantime, one assistant told me that she had complained to SIPTU about unfair practices only to receive a few print outs of rights and laws and was told to keep talking to her TD. The perception is that SIPTU does not want to get embroiled in rows with political parties and TDs. The parliamentary assistants group is small and simply not worth the hassle if the Unions were to end up in a protracted battle with several TDs that they may need to lobby on other much bigger issues.
One current Assistant told me ‘The TD controls everything, if they are sound, then you are ok but you never know when they might change their mind. There is absolutely nothing to fall back on, anyone here could be called in and told “you are gone” tomorrow and there is not a thing you can do. The work you do is entirely up to the TD and there’s no input as regards the conditions or manner of work. Many TD’s are fine and that keeps things together but there are several who really take advantage and anyone has to feel for a colleague that is used like that.’
So it would seem that all is not well within the corridors of power and that this small group of workers must continue without any proper backing. A former assistant put it well ‘Nobody really cares about you, some of the things that go on are crazy, but if you speak out then you let down not just that TD but the party and a whole circle of friends who think you should just get on with it. There is no other walk of life where a group of workers would be treated like that, but, at the end of the day, who’s going to listen?’