Scapegoating public sector lets wealthy off the hook

 

Focus on the real divide, the one between those who can afford to live on less and those who can’t, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

WE ARE the Plastic People of the Universe. As the huge swing in the second Lisbon referendum shows, Irish public opinion is astonishingly volatile and malleable. The plastic can be reshaped with relative ease. You can watch it being done in the demonisation of public servants.

This time last year, there was an emerging sense of outrage directed overwhelmingly at that existing economic consensus. Anger was focused on misgovernment, on the reckless and unethical banking system and on a broader culture of greed.

But those with a stake in that system were not about to give up easily. They understood that their best chance was to provide an alternative scapegoat: public sector workers. This may be a crude strategy of divide, distract and rule, but sometimes the old tricks are the best. This one has been working like a dream. We’ve now suddenly got to a point where almost everything is off the table except cutting public sector wages.

This shaping of options could hardly be more brazen. Remember, for example, the Commission on Taxation? This time last year, it was going to be at the centre of the Government’s strategy for tackling the crisis in the public finances. Now, suddenly, it has been consigned to the exterior darkness of what Brian Cowen calls “long-term focus” and everyone else can call oblivion. Taxation is off the table. With almost no discussion, one of the two arms of fiscal strategy (what is raised and what is spent) has been cut off.

With Nama and further bank bailouts “the only game in town”, the whole discussion on the public finances has been channelled into one little stream: the filthy parasites who teach our children, nurse the sick and try to protect us from crime.

There is one sense in which the public sector unions deserve what they’re getting. Through the secretive benchmarking process, they bought in to the idea of setting wages in the public and private sectors against each other. This was always absurd and deceitful. The deception is the idea that workers in the two sectors of the economy can be compared in some cool, scientific way. In fact, we’re dealing not with science but with politics. What is the equivalent in private firms of a garda or a primary school principal? What is the equivalent in State employment of a shop assistant or a sales rep or a mushroom picker?

The reality is that the two sectors have huge structural differences. More people in the public sector have third-level degrees: 40 per cent compared to 20 per cent. Almost 30 per cent of public sector workers are professionals, compared with just 7 per cent of those in private firms. There are far fewer non-Irish nationals in State jobs, a group that tends to be the most exploited. Workers in the public sector are on average four years older and the length of service is longer (by five years for men and three years for women). And women suffer less discrimination in the public than in the private sector: the gender pay gap is narrower.

Gender is one of the issues that nobody seems to want to talk about. The most striking area in which there is a “public sector premium” is in pay rates for women. According to the CSO figures, the premium is 15 per cent for men but 23 per cent for women. The reason for this is obvious enough – it is harder to discriminate against women in the public service than in private firms. Partly as a result, the really glaring gap is between women in the two sectors of employment, with those in public jobs earning almost €10 an hour more than their sisters in private companies.

The other group that clearly benefits from being in the public sector is low-paid workers. Broadly speaking the difference between public and private pay rates is largest at the bottom and narrows as you move up the scale. (For the bottom 10 per cent, the gap is 22 per cent; for the top 10 per cent it is 6 per cent.) Part of the reason for this is obvious enough: most of the lower-paid workers in public jobs have the protection of trade unions.

If we’re serious about bringing public sector wages into line with those in private firms, we need to allow more exploitation of women and of the low-paid, who benefit most from having State jobs. This may be an absurd conclusion, but it is the logic of an argument that suggests that public sector workers be penalised because so many in the private sector suffer from gender discrimination, exploitation and rotten pensions.

We need to cop on to the game that’s being played here and focus on the real divide, which is not that between public and private but that between those who can really afford to live on less and those who can’t. Wages should be cut from the top down, through taxation in the private sector and pay cuts in the public sector.

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