For many students and citizens across the country, this past week could have been described as hell. Bus drivers are on strike and the whole country came to a standstill, and to make matters worse, some train drivers joined in at the start of week.
It’s no surprise that Bus Éireann is losing money in what has become a highly competitive market, with some buses being operated at nearly 0 capacity in some routes, but should they be hurting the drivers over this? Short answer is no, but it’s a bit more complicated. Many have claimed that some of these bus drivers are on reasonable rates compared to what a private coach driver would receive. Bus Éireann drivers claim that they earn every piece of their wage because they get up very early in the mornings and work till late at night. Management have said the cuts that are being implemented would not directly affect staff wages but that it is needed for sustainability of the organisation.
In an article in The Irish Times in September 2016, it stated that private drivers get paid considerably less than Bus Éireann. According to the report by Barry O’Halloran, Bus Éireann’s average pay sits at €48,819 where the average pay for private coach drivers would be between €30,000 to €39,000. According to management at Bus Éireann, its loss-making Expressway service is creating a financial strain, which is why overtime needs be reduced significantly, alongside 300 redundancies. Unions argue this is not the reason for cutting costs; they say the reason is so that the company can maintain and restructure loss-profit routes so that they can be put out to tender in a number of years. In short, it means a race to the bottom, with unions calling it “clever accounting.” Unfortunately, the people who get hurt the most in this dispute is the average citizen who depends on bus services every day.
If we jump back to the days during and before the Celtic Tiger, Bus Éireann was a strong organisation making a reasonable profit with very little competitors. Flash forward to today with a saturated market full of competitors, it’s no wonder things need to change. It’s wrong to expect drivers to take the hit but something needs to be agreed or we could be looking at a permanent strike and in reality, nobody wants to see this. There are concerns around the dispute escalating, as one of the main unions National Bus and Rail Workers Union (NBRU) who also support Dublin Bus and Irish Rail could lead to Dublin Bus and Irish Rail drivers downing tools for longer than we have previously seen. School buses, which have been fully operational this week, have been asked to join the ongoing strike. If this is to happen it could have a serious effect on attendance at primary and secondary level.
Many politicians have called for Minister Ross to step in with his chequebook but Deputy Ross claims the Government cannot display a “chequebook” on each occasion there is industrial upset. Meanwhile, Bus Éireann management say that money needs to come from somewhere to save the company. Staff have also called on Junior Minister John Halligan to step in and urge Minister Ross to resolve issue, saying that the junior minister has done nothing to help. Minister Halligan has supported the government’s stance on the issue, saying “he would do anything in his power to help, but the onus was on workers and management to resolve the issues.”
The next number of weeks will be critical to the future of Bus Éireann and public transport in Ireland.