It may be called the Universal "Social" Charge, but there's nothing sociable about it. When monthly paid workers opened their pay packets last week, the initial reaction of many was: WTF? Most families had already pared their expenses to the bone. Now they are lucky if they have enough left over from their severely reduced income to feed the cat. Socialising, even the odd pint down the local, is not an option.
But there was some good news to be had in these days of painful austerity.
Or at least there was if you happened to be a member of our elite civil service.
Any of you who have lost your jobs recently, taken huge voluntary wage cuts or had your working week severely reduced, with no guarantee of continued employment or pension -- much of the private sector -- look away now.
Otherwise you will be consumed with an envy so great, so green, so goddamn justified, that you may find yourself running naked through the streets, until some nice guard offers you free food and accommodation while you attempt to restore your battered sanity.
Last week, amid all the hoopla of leadership battles and petty party debates, it was quietly reported that a certain Ms Frances Carew, of Lansdowne Village, Sandymount, Dublin 4, was paid in full by her employer -- the National Employment Rights Authority (ho ho, ho) -- for a full 15 months, even though she never bothered to show up for work and ignored all disciplinary proceedings.
Was she sick? According to the Employment Appeals Tribunal report, the issue of sickness did not arise until after she received a final written warning. Seemingly no explanation was given by Ms Carew for her absences from work or from meetings to discuss why she had a problem in doing her job. So why was she paid for work she didn't bother to do? Because -- according to department personnel officer Maureen O'Sullivan -- the department did not want to be "too harsh too soon" in dealing with the absent worker.
Bless their kind little hearts. Aren't they just lovely people in the Employment Rights Authority? Who wouldn't want to "work" for them? Would that all employers treated their workers so sensitively -- or perhaps not, because why the hell would any of us then bother getting out of bed in the morning?
Then again, most of us are in positions where we actually work in jobs that create income. So no work, no cash.
Whereas Ms Carew, and her wonderfully understanding employer, are in the luxurious position of not having to worry their little heads about creating income. The IMF/ ECB are paying their wages -- at an interest rate that will crucify private enterprise for decades. And it doesn't seem to matter a damn whether some of our civil servant pen-pushers actually turn up for work or not. If it did, surely Ms Carew's prolonged absence without leave would have been rectified much sooner?
God help the dedicated workers in her department. Did they take up the slack without a murmur, or was she so dispensable that no one noticed she wasn't there?
From the report of the tribunal it would appear to be the latter. Seemingly Ms Carew got away with playing hookey long before she decided not to bother turning up at all in 2007. She also failed to show up for any of the numerous disciplinary interviews she had been requested to attend -- but unbelievably, she is claiming unfair dismissal for eventually having her employment terminated in April 2009.
The tribunal was told that Ms Carew was transferred to the Employment Appeals Tribunal (the irony!) in 2003, and that while there "her timekeeping was erratic" and that "she would frequently log in at 11am and log out 10 minutes later before returning in the afternoon".
If this woman had been employed in the private sector she wouldn't have lasted six months. So, why on earth does the civil service tolerate such nonsense, such arrogance, and such waste of our money?
This case has done nothing to persuade the hundreds of thousands of private-sector workers (and many hard-workers in the public sector) who are pinned to their collars, that some people in privileged positions as civil servants aren't completely and utterly taking the piss.
It's hard not to come to the conclusion that a tradition of dodging work, and of expecting benefits and bonuses and perks without having to work for them, has become endemic in some (not all) parts of our public sector, very ably led by our elite civil servants and overpaid politicians.
And, unbelievably, the Croke Park deal, which will mean vital frontline staff cannot be hired because of the refusal of unions and their members to understand that everyone has to take severe pay cuts, is still seen as viable by some political parties.
Meanwhile, people who are desperately struggling to survive in small businesses, or the unfortunate self-employed, look on in anger and amazement as this cosseted Alice in Wonderland existence continues.
In Ireland, we seem to have an ambivalent attitude to people who actually get off their backsides and try to create employment for themselves and others. (Look at our archaic bankruptcy laws.) Rather than seeing them as job creators who develop products/ services or provide employment, we see them as selfish business people who exploit others for their own gain.
While this may be true of a few companies/owners, on the whole most small businesses are run by passionate, dedicated people who always put their staff and business first, often taking the heftiest wage cuts themselves. And they are vital to our economy.
As director Avine McNally said in a report released last January from the Small Firms Association (SFA): "Small businesses are different and important. They are important because they create jobs. They are different because they are managed by people who take risks with their own money."
They're also different in that self-employed/small firm owners are not entitled to the basic rights that other employees receive. And certainly they have none of the benefits of our public servants.
If their businesses collapse (because all our disposable cash is being handed over to prop up the banks and the public sector), they don't have unemployment benefit to fall back on. They have to depend on the charity of organisations like the St Vincent de Paul to put food on the table. This is how we treat the self-employed and small entrepreneurs in Ireland.
Meanwhile, the Ms Carews of the country will continue to be treated with kid gloves and given every excuse, every benefit and every last cent of our hard-earned cash, until we haven't a pot left to piss in.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to run naked, screaming, down the street.