What do we want? Fair pay. When do we want it? Now”

This was the resolute chant of hundreds of striking workers, including those involved in health who braved the cold to stand in solidarity in Enniskillen last Thursday.

Jill Weir, of Fermanagh Trades Council and joint secretary of Unison Health, led the chant that summed up the spirit of determination during the monumental day of industrial action.

“No more delays - we need the money in our pockets!” Jill said, adding that despite the bitter cold, a warm welcome was extended to all who had turned out on strike.

“I thank the public sector for coming out on strike,” she said from the platform. “Some of you here will be on strike for the first time. Know that this is not action taken lightly.

“If we had the choice, we would be in work. But we have been left with no choice. We all deserve fair pay. We deserved it last April, and we shouldn’t have to be taking strike action at all.”

Challenging situation

As a Unison rep, Jill is no stranger to the challenging situation within local healthcare. In many hospitals across Northern Ireland, pay parity and staffing issues abound, and many staff have been left “disillusioned”.

Jill referenced assurances given in 2019 that health workers would never face pay disparities with UK counterparts again - but this has not been honoured, she said, leaving workers angry.

“Our counterparts already have pay increases, and it’s despicable that pay parity is being held like a carrot over our heads,” she continued.

“It’s no secret that our young are leaving this country for better paid jobs elsewhere. We are educating our young people to the highest standards, and they leaving for better paid jobs. Who can blame them?” Jill questioned.

“We need to keep talent here. This sustains and stabilizes the local workforce and protects local services, such as your local hospital.”

More pressing than ever

According to Jill, the need for fair pay is more pressing than ever across multiple sectors.

“People are facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis, and so many had to do without over the Christmas period,” she said.

“Many had to go to food banks, and we thank these organisations for their support of local people.”

Jill added that due to the planned increase in the minimum wage, some of the lowest paid workers will soon find themselves below minimum wage.

“We are facing a dire situation where we have working poor. In April, some of the lowest paid workers in health will fall below the minimum wage.

“These were the same essential workers who kept the country going during the pandemic. This is how you are treated.”

Jill also spoke of rising public opinion that workers are being used as “political pawns” by Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris.

“The Secretary of State has left us with no choice,” she said. “We would prefer to have the government making decisions instead of using us as political pawns.

“We cannot be held to ransom for politicians to get back into Stormont. Heaton-Harris is the one who put roadblocks in place.

“He can release money. He has already done so in the past.”