Return to Trade Union/Social Partnership menu
Benchmarking Report into Public Sector Workers Pay – What does it Mean?
6th July 2002
The long awaited Report of the Public Services Benchmarking Body set up under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) was published on 30th June. Amid grandiose claims that ‘such an exercise had never been attempted in Ireland or overseas’ (Irish Times, 2/7/02) it is a take it or leave it document that is to set the parameters of 230,000 workers pay for the foreseeable future, destroying the framework of relativities between jobs that had set pay up until now.
Originally set up in July 2000 it was a transparent attempt to delay payment to public sector workers during the height of the Celtic Tiger boom and to facilitate enforcement of private sector terms and conditions on workers in the public sector under the euphemism of ‘adaptability, change, flexibility and modernisation.’ It therefore received the enthusiastic endorsement of the ICTU hierarchy. Indeed it was hailed by Joe O’Toole, former head of the teacher’s union INTO, as an ATM machine from which workers could simply withdraw money. The average increase in pay arising from the report is 8.94%, which considering the South is now the second most expensive place to live in the euro zone, according to a report released the previous week, makes nonsense of this remark.
The terms of reference of the report listed a number of criteria that were to determine its findings. These included evaluation and measurement of work; comparison with the private sector; equity; recruitment, retention and motivation; modernisation and effectiveness and implications for national competitiveness. Since these criteria are not necessarily compatible, are ideologically driven or entirely subjective it is not clear how the recommendations arose from them. The economist Jim O’Leary who was originally on the Benchmarking body, but who resigned from it, has raised questions about how the criteria were applied and the findings arrived at.
He questions the rationale for the rises that were recommended on three grounds. Firstly that the need for the public sector to increase wages in order to attract workers who might otherwise go to the private sector in a period of low unemployment when workers have more freedom to choose their employer is not demonstrated by the growth in public sector employment which is higher than that of the private sector. Secondly that there is no evidence that equity considerations apply as ‘broadly speaking’ public sector pay has kept pace with the private sector and lastly that the requirement for changed conditions of public sector workers is unclear and does not appear related to level of awards, some workers are recommended a 2 to 3 percent increase while others 15 to 18 percent or higher but presumably they are required to ‘change’ just as much.
This criticism from the right will no doubt help the leaders of ICTU in selling the report but the fact that such criticisms can be made only exposes the thinking behind benchmarking. It is possible to reply to O’Leary that it is the level of vacancies and staff turnover as well as issues of motivation and morale that must be taken into account when judging the relative attractiveness of public sector employment but this is only to argue on the ground of the enemy. Worker’s attitude to what constitutes equity should not be that of ex-trade union bosses, ex-employer’s representatives, management consultants or High Court judges. If workers in the public sector felt they were losing out, a workers enquiry into public sector pay should have been set up, one made up of the workers themselves with the collaboration of their private sector colleagues. Such an enquiry would have been everything the Benchmarking body isn’t: open, transparent and accountable.
This report is an ultimatum, a classic case of divide and rule where some workers are offered 2.5 percent and others 25 percent. The report generally gives bigger increases to higher paid staff and discriminates against women who fall disproportionately into those sectors offered lower rises. Ahern has said it must be agreed in total or not at all. What we have is a united approach by the state but a divided one by the workers where every individual union has to take its own view under pressure from ICTU and other unions, where workers may have done better, to accept.
Not only is no justification for any of the recommendations given but the whole exercise was designed to ensure none would have to be – the Benchmarking Body dissolved after the report and made clear no clarification would be given. The totally spurious reasons given for this approach, that the confidentiality of those who assisted and advised the body should be maintained and that it was set up as part of the PPF and must therefore fold, only reveals the exercise’s cynical nature. Explaining the figures does not require revealing anyone’s identity and since the PPF is still going why isn’t the Benchmarking body hanging around to explain itself?
The statement by the Nursing Alliance should be supported: ‘The Nursing Alliance feels that the benchmarking process should be accountable, and its recommendations should be justified and open to verification by the unions representing the grades affected.’ This should be the demand of every union and if not accepted immediately the report should be rejected and a conference of public sector workers called to determine a strategy to win increases that really are equitable and respond to the real needs of public sector workers.
This is the means by which all public sector workers can unite to reject the report. Although in some ways it has already achieved its objective – delaying increases and dividing workers intent on better increases, most notably the teachers - the report and the response of the government show it is the springboard for further attacks. Contrary to what ICTU leaders are saying the demand for compliance with ‘adaptability, change, flexibility and modernisation’ is a real threat. Immediately it will be the excuse to delay payment of the 75 percent of the award for which ICTU, with its great negotiating skills, got no guarantee of payment date. The immediate rush by ICTU to defend and sell the report’s recommendations and emphasis on getting it through as quickly as possible can be the means to implement changed terms and conditions that otherwise might prove difficult to push through. This is especially so given the looming deficit in the public finances. Making competitiveness a criterion for awards might not have seemed to raise problems during the height of the boom but having accepted it, what defence is there when the government claims it as justification for changes, now that the economy is doing much less well and this is reflected in government finances?
Even the 25 percent which was supposed to be automatic and backdated to December last year will now only be paid when ‘solid negotiations’ are underway on the conditions for paying the remaining 75 percent, that is when the government are happy with the conditions upon which it will be accepted. Most importantly they have made it clear this will mean acceptance of a new social partnership deal to follow the PPF next June. So the 8.94 percent will not just be a part of the current deal but of the next one. The increases now become much less impressive when they are to cover not just claims that built up before the body was set up, in July 2000, and not just the two years it took to put unexplained figures together, but also the unknown period over which the next deal will be proposed to run.
All this lies behind ICTU’s hurried embrace of the report and threats to any section of workers who might want to reject it. Acceptance will be part of a larger agenda that was seen the last time the public finances were in difficulty, in 1990. At that time the new partnership deal, the Programme for Economic and Social Progress (PESP), delivered wage restraint, tax increases, privatisation, unemployment and public services cuts. A new partnership deal will tie workers to renewed wage restraint and cuts in services, privatisation is already underway but will be accelerated and Charlie McCreevy has already made it clear in the Dail that tax rises are on the away. How appropriate that just as the PESP witnessed a tax amnesty for the rich while taxes for workers increased we are about to witness publication of the Ansbacher report detailing how the rich broke the law for years by evading tax. Appropriate because the real meaning of social partnership will be revealed in the fact that they will get away with it, the government will not prosecute and the union bosses will strand in the way of effective political outrage by workers because these people are, after all, their partners.
It would be comforting if resistance to all this had grown or developed over the last dozen years but sadly this is not the case. The working class despite being objectively stronger, there is less unemployment for example, has not developed a minority of militants organised to oppose the partnership deals and the left has created rank and file campaigns that meet less often and are therefore less democratic than the bureaucracy it claims to oppose. The benchmarking report in itself is a major challenge to workers, as we said; it can effectively divide them while uniting the state with the trade union bosses. There will be a lot of pressure on dissatisfied sections of workers to accept low increases at an unacceptable price. To resist this will require unity across sectional lines. Whether there is any section of workers able to achieve this unity remains to be seen but the price of not doing so will be great.