Monday 16 September 2019

Ivan Yates: 'As public workers blackmail us for more pay, private workers pick up tab'

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

There are many mysteries about our Ireland but events over the last week caused me to ponder about one in particular: why is there no one to stand up for 1.7 million private sector workers in the country?

Typically they are not in trade unions. There's no vocal vested interest to organise a national rally. They also tend to be found working for companies or family businesses that must constantly compete to survive. The option of a strike is a luxury they don't have. They would take the hit as it would result in lost revenue, market share, and job security.

Two-thirds of these employed/self-employed people have no private pension scheme, and are thus reliant on the old-age pension. This is less than the living wage and insufficient to pay for tomorrow's housing rental costs.

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Nor is there any such thing as a permanent post in the private sector. Job insecurity is further heightened in an era of a growing gig economy and the zero-hour contract.

Ordinary workers operating in commercial sectors have no voice. There is no one bouncing off the benches in Leinster House on their behalf. Political parties respond to pressure groups, organised campaigns. TDs respond to visible media debates, where spokespersons articulate pay demands. But they invariably will cave in the face of public disruption.

So who exactly am I talking about?

Joe. A cashier in a Dublin betting shop, faced with closure due to the doubling of the betting tax in the most recent budget to 2pc, he has been further exposed by the UK equine flu outbreak.

Mary. A receptionist in a midlands hotel, suffering from the 50pc Vat increase slapped on the hospitality sector.

John. A metal fabricator machinist shift worker in Galway, whose company's order book is down from the emerging eurozone slow-down.

Paddy. A cattle farmer in Roscrea who's terrified about the slump Brexit threatens to beef prices in the UK.

Matt. An alternative health products outlet owner in Enniscorthy hit with 23pc Vat for the first time.

Patricia. A print journalist facing redundancy from online social media displacement.

These struggling regular people are the backbone of the economy. They're the long-suffering punters paying the extra €11bn in income taxes to bail out the country.

For them, monthly survival is the only goal on the horizon. Many still haven't had their pay packets restored back to 2008 levels - having suffered periods of redundancy, lost jobs.

Let's compare their collective plight with their public sector counterparts, who face no job threats from Brexit.

The public sector pay bill has increased by 20pc since 2014. The Public Sector Pay Agreement provides restored pay by 2020 across grades - immediately for those under €35,000; 2019 for those under €50,000; 2020 up to €70,000. Increments remain automatic, based on the number of years service. There are no productivity requirements for these restorations. There are sympathetic sick-pay schemes, whereas self-employed endure no show-no pay.

On average, public sector pay is 40pc higher here than in the private sector. In the UK they're roughly equivalent. Looney economics are proposed by public sector trade union leaders and leftie politicos that only the net salary costs should be calculated because the State recoups employees' tax contributions. Whilst private sector workers bear all net costs of the entire public sector pay bill.

The outcome of the nurses' strike from the INMO concessions will be inevitably seized upon by psychiatric nurses, general practitioners, paramedics, hospital consultants and ambulance workers. Two-thirds of health workers (circa 80,000), represented by Siptu, Forsa, NAGP, IHCA and IMO, will fast-track reversal of Fempi cuts and pay parity.

Let's be clear: Threats work. Holding the country to ransom is rewarded. Patient safety terrifies ministers.

The entire Dublin economy faces identical retention problems. But which business employer isn't facing identical recruitment pressures - construction trades, IT graduates, professions? The capital's labour market is overheating, with less than 5pc unemployment. This doesn't mean across-the-board top-up 7pc pay hikes.

The INMO made big claims. "One applicant per four nursing vacancies" transpires to be a ratio of nursing applicants/posts to be 1.86 to one. Pay levels for every category of nurse employed by the HSE are greater than those payable by the NHS in England; the minimum percentage differential (in favour of Irish nurses) is 19pc and can rise to 39pc.

Salary figures quoted by the union always exclude significant overtime payments, hence being overworked - the official average pay for a nurse in 2018, when overtime, premia and allowances are included, was €56,223.

Previous terms of the current pay deal (Lansdowne Road) mean the basic salary of a newly qualified staff nurse will rise from €29,056 last October to €36,196 in October 2020. Conceding the minimum up-front interpretation of the Labour Court will yield double-digit gains for 'enhanced in-practice' staff nurses.

Taxpayers pay for 1,400 nurses to be trained annually, graduating like all university students without obligation to work in Ireland thereafter. Our higher education budget of €1.6bn is the subject of continual campaigns to invest a further billion euro (Cassells report). On average the Exchequer spends €5,000 per annum per student in universities.

It's commonplace to repay sponsor finance for Master's degrees whereby hospitals secure retention employment obligations. Many states, such as Malaysia, require up to seven years of obligatory employment in their health sector for publicly funded graduates. Education and our labour market needs are disconnected.

Taxpayers, many of whom never had opportunity to go to university, are subsidising the health systems in Sydney, Dubai and Abu Dhabi in providing skilled workers. In any event, matching some economies like Australia, which may be on the cusp of an economic bubble bursting, is short-sighted.

We're entering a pivotal, defining fiscal period. Public sector pay finances are being extorted in ways that will deny other public service enhancement investment options, (eg. housing and education). Alternatively, neither taxes nor the national debt will be reduced to fund an additional €2.3bn pay bill.

The price for resolving the nurses' dispute could shape a future decade of standards of living for private sector workers, who remain ignored by TDs in their alacrity to cravenly garner nurses' votes at picket lines. Populist politicians placing opportunism ahead of courage.

We've been here before with special pay awards. Remember benchmarking (2004-7) resulted in 33,000 costly early retirements and reduced differential pay for a new entrants after 2010.

The interests of the silent majority (exposed to market realities) and so-called "public support" for the picket lines are initially competing and ultimately incompatible. Another weak week of national political naïvety in the face of blackmail on patient safety.

Irish Independent

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