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Bus Eireann awarded contract to operate routes in Waterford

Ebb-tide in the privatisation of public transport

30 November 2017

Bus Eireann have been awarded the contract to operate the routes in Waterford, which they have always operated, or to put it in the parlance of 'competition' they have been 'won'. These routes are part of the 10% of routes overall that make up the initial tranche earmarked for competitive tendering and come on the back of the privatisation of the Dublin Bus routes.

These are not the most lucrative routes in the system and difficulties exist for the provision of an efficient bus service in Waterford by the need for another bridge over the Suir and a clogged up traffic system on the Quay at peak times. Growth in bus use has been flat in Waterford over the past five years due to underinvestment and infrastructural improvements are required in order to make private provision of transport look any better than the current publicly provided service.

The public sector company then has been 'awarded' the most difficult of contracts and public money has been 'found' to develop the market with a substantial investment in seventeen state of the art vehicles meaning the routes are being seeded by public money which can only improve their attractiveness to multinational companies in 5 years time when the contract expires.

This so called 'victory' has came at a price, one that is being paid by the workers. Bus Eireann says “the company has had a very challenging year in terms of undertaking essential structural and competitive reform,” which of course translates as increased productivity, increased hours, 13 hour day rosters, threatened transfers to distant workplaces, job losses and no recovery in pay following the economic crash. Gaining the Waterford routes is being presented as a victory for a slimmed down more professionally run public service by Bus Eireann management who see this as verification that their policy of cuts and wage suppression has produced a leaner more 'successful' company.

The process of privatisation

The greatest success for the State lies in the fact that the process of passenger transport privatisation, although in its infancy, is fully operational and the principle of competition has been introduced into the public service. The competitive system put in place by the establishment of the National Transport Authority which was set up in order to reduce or remove the cost of transport provision from the State's books is proving its value. By awarding this contract to Bus Eireann the NTA is ostensibly demonstrating its 'even-handedness' and 'fairness' as it works it's way through all the major route networks with the next prize being the Kildare – Newbridge corridor.

The present 10% of routes being tendered will doubtlessly expand and any contract that Bus Eireann manages to hold on to will have to be applied for again in five years time. Over the coming years the private slice of the cake will expand while public sector workers are constantly pressurised over wage control, speed up and efficiency measures as they compete with some of the lowest paid workers in the country in the private transport firms.

While the union leadership, whose negligence eased the setting up of the NTA, persuaded by the empty promise of committee places on an advisory council, make appropriate protests about the threat to jobs and conditions and the sell off of public assets it falls to the leadership of the  Coach Tourism and Transport Council, Kevin Traynor, to highlight its most  essentially important aspect, which is the process itself.

While expressing his disappointment at not getting the Waterford slot Mr Traynor added that “the tender process was a step in the right direction” which “introduced competition into the marketplace.”  That competition means the driving down of wages and the destruction of conditions for public sector workers and the market means a bonanza for private operators.

The nature of the capitalist recovery

The joint targets of the drive to privatisation  is State debt and growth. Under the terms of the Maastricht agreement State indebtedness must be less than 60% of GDP. It is currently running at around 77% but it recently has been suggested that the Irish target should be revised downwards to meet a projected target of 45% of GDP by 2020.

The privatisation of public utilities, the drive towards a low wage economy and increased productivity is designed to shrink that indebtedness and hit increasingly austere targets while the profits earned by private companies registers as 'economic growth'.  The mechanics of the economic 'recovery' are made clear by this process; private company's profits grow while workers toil harder for less, an increase in what Marx referred to as the 'rate of surplus value', or increased exploitation of labour.

In the case of the Irish public transport system it achieves this increased level of exploitation in two ways. Public transport provision is passed on to private companies as happened with the Dublin Bus routes, or alternately the public companies that are forced to compete to retain their contracts introduce 'efficiencies' as has been the case in Bus Eireann more generally as the process of tendering rolls out. This means the cost of labour is reduced in either case. The mechanism has introduced competition into the workplace and is accelerating the race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions.

This privatisation process in public transport is just the equivalent of the two tier pay arrangements in the teaching profession and is the same mechanism which, for example, in the Northern health service has resulted in ancillary staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital being forced to agree to punitive conditions to prevent their jobs being privatised.

Privatisation wave

The push towards privatisation is an important aspect of current overall capitalist plans to boost economic growth. A relatively unsuccessful strategy to date as low levels of profitability persists.   Privatisation of public services is continuing across Europe effecting millions of workers. According to the 2017 KPMG summary of privatised assets the “massive global privatization wave that began in 2012 continues unabated.” and Ireland makes it in to the top five countries with the highest privatisation revenues for 2015.

With no resistance coming from the trade union bureaucracy, compromised by their acceptance of the logic of austerity, and hypnotised by the promise of partnership with capitalism through negotiations, consultative committees and lobbying the need has never been greater for the workers to self organise. Without building organisationally on the already existing discontent among union rank and file workers and resisting the bureaucrats betrayal this privatisation seems set to continue well into 2018 and beyond.

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