From productivity to pensions, and from to outsourcing to Croke Park hours, the public service pay talks are rife with issues that could derail the negotiations, says Stephen Rogers

Week two of a pay talks session is usually when one finds out whether a deal is possible, whether the ingredients which have emerged in the first week can be put together in a successful recipe to keep both sides happy.

As Government and unions re-enter the WRC-moderated discussions this morning, though, there are already real fears that this process may be destined for failure given the measures sought by the Government which, unions believe, could make workers worse off rather than better.

One of the country’s largest trade unions, Impact, whose support for any deal is virtually essential for it to be passed by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, is already warning that “the odds in favour of a pay deal being concluded and put to ballot have lengthened”.

Under the much-maligned term ‘fiscal space’, the Government set its stall out early. It told unions that while it has €550m available to spend overall, only €200m of that will be available after existing commitments are met. While that position improves considerably in 2019, 2020, and 2021, with €1bn available in each year, Impact pointed out to its members that there will be other calls on the €3.2bn total including demands for extra public service staffing.

Furthermore, it is immediately evident that unions will not get the usual frontloading which they seek in any pay deal — making it that little bit harder to sell to members.

The initially tight fiscal space will obviously constrain the speed at which pay lost by staff during the economic crisis can be restored. Therefore, it may be that concessions will initially have to be made in other areas. Public sector workers struggle to be convinced to give further productivity in the face of what would appear likely to be a meagre return.

The pensions debate is one of the most controversial, and one which could easily derail the whole process. The Government wants most public servants to pay more towards their pensions even as the pension levy is being unwound. Divisions are already mounting on that issue among public service representatives.

Union sources say a three-tier system of pension contributions will have to be brought in, with gardaí, judges, and Government ministers — who are all on fast accrual schemes worth up to 18% more than the pensions of those who joined the public service after 2013 — to pay the highest rates.

Gardaí have leapt to the defence of their entitlement saying their pension is “hard-earned, and a deferred payment for work already done. In essence, any accelerated accrual can be regarded as ‘danger money’.”

The pension levy is worth €720 m to the exchequer, and when discussions intensify in the coming days, the Government will look to continue to take in as much of that total as possible, while each union will want to restrict the contributions expected from its members.

Another red line issue for the Government is the so-called Croke Park hours — the extra hours public servants have been working since the economic crash.

Unions have had a consistent expectation that when the crisis ended, so too would the longer working week. However, Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe has made it clear that he sees the extra hours as here to stay.

In last week’s talks, the Government told unions that the additional hours which public servants have been working are worth €583m — rising to more than €620m when future employees are taken into account.

Union sources have indicated that, while the restoration of hours is important to public sector workers, the least they would expect for their members is a deal which would see workers able to choose to take reduced working hours in lieu of wage increases.

On the subject of hours, the amount being paid to public servants to work on Saturdays has also been brought to the table by the Government.

It wants a review of the additional monies earned by the State’s employees for working on Saturdays as well as consideration to be given to making working on that day a part of more workers’ weeks. The union side has given the proposals short shrift, saying they will not entertain telling members they are facing cuts when they go to the table seeking pay increases.

Another issue which was almost sprung on the unions at the start of last week was around outsourcing — and it could become a significant bone of contention as the talks proceed, very possibly a deal-breaker.

Early last week, the Government appeared to be seeking to weaken the controls on how services can be given over to the private sector. At present, a business case must be presented as to why the service should be outsourced, and that business case is not allowed to includes labour costs.

Unions say there would likely be a race to the bottom if business costs were to be included, as the private sector could offer the service at the lowest possible wage and most basic conditions, leaving little chance that the public service could compete.

Siptu president Jack O’Connor has said his union will not back any pay deal which dilutes the outsourcing rules.

Finally, one issue which has not really been touched on yet in the talks process is the “special deals” which health unions appear to be pushing for in order to improve the recruitment and retention of staff. The notion of such special deals for certain public servants is winning no favours with the other unions who insist that it would be unacceptable for any group to get higher pay awards than others.

Last week the Civil Public and Services Union told its members that “there can be no further productivity deals”. It now seems exceptionally unlikely that any new agreement will not require public servants to give more in order to see an increase in their pay packets.


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