The Amber Women’s Refuge in Kilkenny was set up to support women facing domestic violence. Although the Centre has never been as busy it is now facing massive cuts. The workers at the Centre are fighting to save the service. Earlier this week the workers, members of SIPTU, placed a daily two-hour picket at the Centre to highlight the situation they are facing. They are looking for support. Following the intervention of the Labour Relations Court, talks have taken place between the workers and management. Although daily pickets have been suspended pending the outcome of these talks, the fight for the Centre is still very much on. In this interview Claire O’Neill talks about what has happened and the background to the dispute.
Q: For those who don’t know, where is the Amber Women’s Refuge Centre and what work does it do?
A: The Amber Refuge Centre in is Kilkenny. We provide accommodation to women and children who are experiencing domestic violence in their lives, and also to adult females who, through no fault of their own, find themselves homeless. We provide accommodation to women as well as a care plan for those who look for help from us. We try to look after the women and children as much as possible so that they can find their feet in what is a very difficult situation for them. We also operate a 24-hour-a-day helpline for women in distress.
Q How long has the Centre been in existence?
A: Amber opened its doors in 2001. Previous to that we operated a drop-in centre in Kilkenny. Initially a very committed group of women got together to help other women who were suffering domestic violence. They understood the need that was there and fought tirelessly for a proper service to be put in place. They eventually got the money together and in 2001 at the culmination of their efforts we opened the doors to the women and children. Since then the need has increased every year and Centre’s services are in constant demand.
Q: You are part of a national network also. What is that?
A: Each women’s refuge is Ireland is actually independently run. They are run by a voluntary board of management, or at least ours is. But Safe Ireland is the umbrella organization that we all work under. Safe Ireland provides national statistics and they also work at advocacy for changing the laws and the like. We work with them and under their guidance.
Q: How long have worked at the Centre, Claire?
A: I’ve been with the Women’s Refuge from back when we had just a drop in centre in Kilkenny. So I've been there since day one, you could say.
Q: The situation now is that a serious dispute has arisen at the Centre and you are looking for support. Can you outline how this has come about and what the dispute is about?
A: We all know the economic climate is bad. Because of that this situation has arisen. We have all taken the wage cuts that have been imposed since the crash. But the cuts in funding are now having a huge impact on the service itself. They are impacting directly on us and in particular on the staff team that operates the Amber Refuge. Five people were made redundant last Sunday. Our administrator was let go about a month ago. Now they are implementing a new roster and this will result in at least five more losing their jobs. Apart from this dreadful situation we are also now facing into a work situation that we oppose whole-heartedly.
Q: Is it this that has caused the current dispute?
A: Yes. Due to the latest staff cuts we will be lone workers at the Centre which is not something we would want to advertise ever. We will be expected to work alone to look after up to seven families at any given time. Not only that, but we will also need to run a help line, run the house itself, monitor health and safety and maintain the safety of the families. It is just not on. At any time we can angry husbands banging on the door looking for their wives. This is not a healthy situation for anyone. It is not good and we don’t think we can provide an adequate service with just one person on duty.
Q: The Centre’s finances are in crisis?
A: For sure. We are not denying this and no one is. We have all been aware of this and last year in fact we, as workers at the Centre, got together to suggest various ways in which money could be saved at the Centre. At the time we put a lot of good ideas forward because we knew what the Centre did and we knew how to run it. But these have not been listened to. Instead management brought in a consultant and this consultant has produced a report that is now being used to justify this latest disastrous change in the rosters.
Q: Were you involved with the consultant’s report at all?
A: We did take part in that review. But we weren’t told what the purpose of the review was in the first place. So we were in the dark. The review has not been formally released although the Bord of Management received it in June. In fact we are going to be told about its full contents on Friday coming. But in the meantime some of the consultant’s report’s recommendations have been implemented! Including the recommendation that we lose our shift attendants and in effect become lone workers at the Centre.
Q: So the specific proposal about working alone was arrived at by the consultant employed by management?
A: Correct. From what we know there appears to be nothing in his report about what we the workers proposed in terms of cost savings. There are strange things in it, from what we know. For example the consultant’s report suggests that we become more of an appoiment based service. Now that is just not feasible when you consider the crisis situation that some of the women that come to us are in. If we have a lady who comes to us, she has maybe been thinking about this for ages and she might just decide to act finally. If you have an n appointment system, where are you? I just don’t know how that could work with someone in a crisis. Does it make sense?
Q But management are adamant.
A: We have already lost five shift attendants. They were give notice early last week. So right now we are facing a situation where we are working alone. We are trying to maintain the service but this is a very difficult situation. That is why we have to take action. We want to highlight the situation and we need support.
Q: What is the situation with other women refuges in the country?
The situation we are in here in Kilkenny is a complete exception. There are 19 refuges in network and right now none are operating under this sort of regime. There is one centre with something similar but it isn’t normal at all to have lone workers on shifts because it is not safe. The people we have talked to in the others refuges are horrified about what is being suggested for the Amber Refuge.
Q: Since Monday you have taken action?
A: Yes, we are picketing for two hours during part of the day at the Centre in Kilkenny. We are calling it industrial action but we are not asking people to stop work and stop the operation of the centre. No one wants to do that. But we know too that we must highlight our case. The picketing is about hightlighting our situation.
Q: So people can come along during the picketing and join in. What else can they do?
A: Spread the word about our situation. Write to the newspapers. Support us on Facebook. Get onto your TDs and express your dissatisfaction with this. Look, let’s be clear here. This is an essential service and a service that we vitally need. If we are prepared to cut services of this sort to people who are in need of help, then where are we going in this society? We need to stop this. The point here also is that if this is successful at the Amber Women’s Refuge Centre then it will become the norm in other refuges and other help centre’s also.
Q: How you do you see the situation being resolved?
A: We have tried time and again to talk and discuss the future of the service with management. We know how vital the service is and we know how it needs to be run. We know that money is tight now but there are ways to make savings that don’t simply mean penalising us as the workers and destroying the service in the process. We, as the workers, are vital to the running of this service and our rights also must be respected. Dialogue is not such a big thing to ask for, it is? Right now we can’t accept being dictated to especially when it is destroying the service. Dialogue is the way forward. It isn’t right that we as workers are being treated as if we had no say in this. We do and we are determined not to be bullied. So dialogue and a common understanding must be the outcome and the solution. It is us the workers who are being made to pay for this crisis. In turn the service itself is being place in jeopardy. This should not be allowed happen. Support us!