Public servants are right to want to see their pay recover

Only a year after the Lansdowne Road Agreement, pay for civil and public servants is back on the agenda. Bernard Harbor looks at the issues involved.

WITH public service pay back in the news less than a year after the Lansdowne Road deal was done, policymakers, commentators, and union officials could usefully consult the 2015 Civil Service Engagement Survey, which was published to little fanfare earlier this year.

They won’t be surprised that, when asked, half our civil servants said they consider themselves underpaid compared to others who do similar work. It’s a subjective view, rather than the outcome of real pay comparisons, and a similar study of workers in virtually any sector of the economy would probably yield similar results.

Nevertheless, it reveals something about what public servants think at a time of increasingly vocal dissatisfaction with pay rates and the structure of public service remuneration.

Our perceptions of whether we consider ourselves fairly paid or not are informed by a number of things, including comparisons with others, and there’s little doubt that pay expectations have been fuelled by figures recently bandied about in the transport sector.

But whatever the outcome there, the recent and respected IRN-CIPD pay survey (a study of almost 600 private sector employers) identified average private sector pay increases of 2.7% last year, and projected increases averaging 2.8% in 2016. This is in line with the significant but modest increases negotiated by public service unions in the Lansdowne Road agreement in 2015.

There will be a strong case to accelerate what has so far been modest public service pay recovery if better-than-expected growth and ‘fiscal space’ emerge in the coming months. But even in that benign scenario, the cash available will not meet all the demands recently voiced on pay and investment. Union members will expect their negotiators to ensure that any available resources are distributed progressively, and not simply to those who shout first or loudest.

The way in which earnings are set also has a substantial influence on workers’ attitudes, and there’s little doubt that the recent history of public service pay determination is a huge factor in the perception — as well as the reality — of unfairness.

Public servants know that private sector workers also paid a high price in the crash, particularly those who lost their jobs or were forced to emigrate. But the scale the 2009 pension levy and the 2010 pay cuts, and the manner in which were imposed, still loom large in a scarred collective memory.

For those earning more than €65,000 a year, the discontent was compunded by the additional temporary pay cuts in 2013’s Haddington Road deal. Issues such as increased working hours also remain live bones of contention for many.

That said, some of our perceptions on public service pay have become slightly skewed. For instance, it has become accepted as fact that there are ‘two-tier’ pay scales across the civil and public service, condemning staff recruited after 2010 to earn 10% less than their colleagues throughout their careers.

Such divisive pay scales were indeed imposed (not agreed) in the dying days of the last Fianna Fáil-led government. But unions successfully negotiated the end of the two-tier system on foot of the Haddington Road deal two years later.

The result is that most public servants recruited since 2011 move onto pre-2011 scale points after two years — less in some cases. Then, subject to acceptable performance, they ascend the same pay scales as everyone else in their grade.

The issue is more complicated for groups such as firefighters and teachers, for whom allowances are a standard element of earnings. But in most grades, everyone is on the same pay band, albeit with up to two additional pay points inserted at the bottom of the scales. So, while the issue of low pay in parts of the public service certainly needs to be addressed, talk of a ‘two-tier’ system is not especially informative.

There was another telling aspect of the Civil Service Engagement Survey that should inform policymakers trying to judge the mood among public servants. The fact that just 15% — less than one civil servant in every six — thinks the public respects and appreciates their work should be a cause of great concern.

The survey doesn’t dig deeper to explore the thinking behind this shocking statistic. But it’s very likely that the media, political and public opprobrium they experienced at the outset of the crash has intensified the belief among public servants that they are undervalued.

Undeserved stereotypes of overpaid, underworked, and out-of-touch public servants exist in every advanced economy regardless of the shape, size, cost, or performance of its state sector. But in 2009 Ireland it was cranked up a number of gears.

I recall one extreme example in which a journalist described public servants as “inherently dysfunctional people” who were “averse to the joy of living” and therefore “cling to monetary advantage”. I have personally argued that unions scored some serious own goals in our communications with the wider public at that time, but this was an undeserved level of vitriol that public servants find hard to forget.

Six years later, the tone and content of the public debate is, thankfully, quite different. Barring one or two Hezbollah in the commentariat, there is none of the venom of the 2009-2010 period.

It’s now broadly recognised that, like others, public servants were hit hard by the crash and worked hard to rebuild the country. Most accept that there is a case for public service pay recovery, over time and in the context of financial realities and other priorities in society.

The trick for public service unions in the coming period will be to retain that degree of public understanding by putting a legitimate case in ways that don’t antagonise the majority that lives and works outside the State sector. This will be particularly important if improved economic conditions open up the prospect of accelerated income restoration and increased investment in our public services.

Bernard Harbor is head of communications at Impact, Ireland’s largest public service union.


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