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4 July 2002 Edition

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"Benchmarking awards must be paid" - Ó Caoláin

Sinn Féin Dáil group leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD has called on the Coalition government to pay the wage elements of the Benchmarking report as quickly as possible. He said that any negotiations on the report must be conducted in a positive environment not in the negative one generated by the comments of the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance.

"We cannot have first-class public services if public servants at all levels are not properly paid," he said. "If there are to be negotiations then they should focus on the differentials between the increases proposed for different public service grades rather than ability to pay.

"The concern about Benchmarking now is that it may reproduce in the public service the growing and unjustifiable wage differential that exists in the private sector between the ordinary worker and management. Negotiation should focus on this issue of inequality.

"The government must live up to their responsibilities to public sector workers. Whatever the value of benchmarking, it should be considered in a wider debate on the social and economic value of those who work in the public services. By delaying payment, the Coalition is sending the wrong message to those workers without whom we would not have been able to build the economic successes of the last decade.

"The government have yet to make clear what the true state of public finances is. Their pre-election forecasts have been shown to be woefully inaccurate.

"We called for a comprehensive spending review in our manifesto along with a review of the tax regime. If this was done with the social partners involved we could ascertain, once and for all, how much money there is, how it is being spent, are we getting value for money from our tax spend and how the next Budget can best focus on social need."

Benchmarking for an unequal Ireland


BY ROBBIE MacGABHAN

    
Trade unions need to ask the Benchmarking Body how many of the 3,563 private sector jobs they studied were unionised?
Have you been skimming through the acres of news coverage on benchmarking, the government response and the growing crisis in exchequer finances and still feel completely in the dark? Don't worry; you are not alone.

Most of the 230,000 public servants affected by the wage-related recommendations of this 220-page report, along with their families and friends, have no doubt been poring over the details too, with similar perplexity.

And if you are wondering that it all seems just a little bit on the tricky side, again don't worry; your analysis is correct. Make no mistake - this is a mess of huge proportions.

The first report from the Public Service Benchmarking Body, and the accompanying responses it has generated in government and trade union circles, cuts to the heart of economic and social issues in the 26 Counties today. Issues such as wage inequalities, the value of social partnership, the leadership and responsibilities of the trade union movement and of government are all in there. Also included are important questions, such as how we as a society should debate and discuss vital issues. But first is the question on thousands of minds across the state - what is benchmarking anyway?


WHAT IS BENCHMARKING?


Benchmarking is an ideologically driven method of measuring workplace performance and the economic value of that work. It is ideological in that it is very much a creation of free market ideology, which sees society as being totally made up of markets where everything is measurable. Everything has a price and a definable value.

The Benchmarking Report describes this as "the quantitative and qualitative evaluation and measurement of work". What the Benchmarking Body actually did was collect information on 138 public service grades covering 3,994 individual jobs, including everything from nurses to engineers, laboratory technicians, clerical officers and so on. This was compared with data on 3,563 private sector jobs.

The Benchmarking Body was looking not only at wage comparisons between public and private sector employees, but also at issues such as recruitment, retention, modernisation of the public sector, the value of pensions and other differences between private and public sector workers.

The result of all this work was a series of recommendations for wage increases in the public sector, and here is where the problems begin.


WAGE INEQUALITY


The report does not give any detail on how it arrived at particular recommendations and one obvious conclusion from studying its proposals is the inequality between the wage increases offered between the higher and lower grades in the public service. For example, intern doctors are awarded a 5% wage increase, 8% for house officers and registrars and 12% for specialist registrars. A private in the defence forces gets 4% while a lieutenant colonel gets 11%. An ordinary garda gets 5% while a superintendents get 16%.

Another factor not taken into account by the report writers is the glaring inequities in the private sector between the wages and working conditions of management and workers.


SOCIAL VALUES


The implication from the study is that the private sector inequities that are already present in the public sector are being worsened in this report.

What is missing from the heart of this report is how you measure the social and economic value of workers. This issue is not addressed and Bertie Ahern's 'take or leave it' approach to the report shows that nothing has changed. Just look at how his government responded to previous wage claims.

In recent years we have seen the government concede to some of the wage claims of nurses and gardaí while knocking back teachers. This was not done from any well thought out rationale by government. It was due solely to the fact that the teachers were the least well organised, were ineffective lobbyists and failed to win public opinion onto their side.

Interestingly, in January 2001, there was no difficulty in paying without preconditions the wage rises recommended in a previous benchmarking report. Hospital consultants, TDs and other higher civil servants all got substantial increases in salaries. TDs got 19%, with 22% for the Taoiseach. If this could be paid for TDs and higher civil servants, why does the same standard not apply to all workers today?

Perhaps most to blame from this fiasco is the trade union leadership itself, which agreed to go into the benchmarking process without setting out its requirements. Now they find themselves only getting 25% of any wage recommendations up front, with the remainder subject to changes in working conditions.

What does that really mean? Many of us who work in the private sector without pensions and in shoestring operations that appear much more well organised from the outside know that the 'modern' workplace usually just means a cheaper one, where people take more responsibilities for less pay and work longer hours. Is this what we really want to have in the public sector?

Unions then end up in the bizarre position of protecting working conditions they never designed or wanted in the first place, solely on the basis that the private sector alternative is so much worse.


DEBATE AND DISAGREEMENT


Another crucial issue arising form this report is how we should conduct debate and discourse on important issues in Ireland today. It was clear during the last partnership negotiations that many public sector workers were not happy with their wages and general work environment. Rather than host some sort of public discussion about this, the government, facilitated nicely by the trade union movement, kicked for touch. They formed a committee, who hired consultants, who produced a long report lacking in crucial details explaining how they reached their conclusions.

Instead, the report, which has ramifications for the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers, is to be accepted in its entirety. Is there no forum, no method for discussing these important issues? Are we living in an Ireland where dissent is now not allowed?

It is the same mentality that led to the government trying to railroad the Nice Treaty through the electorate, the same mentality that is at work today with the second referendum campaign.

At this rate, we don't need democracy or debate. We don't need elections. We can, it seems, in the minds of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, rely on a government by consultancy dictatorship. Is this the future we really want to face into?

Trade unions are about to open negotiations with the government on this report and then they will begin talks on the possibility of a new partnership agreement.

But until they face up to the realities of their situation and how ineffective a lot of their representation on behalf of workers really is, the ongoing partnership process will be mere window dressing.

Trade unions need to seize the initiative and take stock of where they are. A good starting place would be to ask the Benchmarking Body how many of the 3,563 private sector jobs they studied were unionised?

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