Reform and equity - Fairness is a cornerstone of recovery

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny and his Government are enjoying the afterglow of two very successful international visits and the poll published yesterday, as the Government approaches 100 days in office, will do nothing to dent its confidence.

The Sunday Business Post/Red C poll suggests that, if an election was held today, Fine Gael might capture its holy grail and achieve an overall majority.

Despite the optimism animating Fine Gael this morning, it is impossible to pretend it can be sustained unless a lot more is done to ensure that every step taken to restore sanity to our finances treats all sectors equally. Further pain cannot be imposed on any single group in isolation, especially if that group is made up of some of society’s lowest-paid workers. It must be seen that new austerity measures are blind and are imposed impartially across society.

At the moment that is not the case and, unless it becomes the norm, we can expect the kind of social division and unrest that would make economic recovery all the more remote. We simply cannot afford that.

So much of last week’s sparring between Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton and his coalition partners over proposals to axe Joint Labour Committees (JLC) might have been avoided if measures aimed at workers outside the remit of the JLCs were made known at that time.

Last week’s document put the spotlight on some of the lowest-paid workers and suggested that the premium payments they enjoy for working on Sundays might be sacrificed to restore competitiveness. It would reduce payroll costs, but it remains to be seen how an industry-wide, level playing-field measure would restore competitiveness.

We know that a great number of workers whose incomes come under the control of JLCs are so poorly paid that they need constant welfare support. Just last week Department of Social Protection figures showed that nine out of 10 families that qualify for family income supplement work in the private sector. If Sunday premiums in the hotel, food and catering sectors are cut then that figure will rise. Employers’ wage bills will fall but the state’s obligations will rise.

Weekend reports that the Government is to broaden its review of labour costs to include some professions might go some way to creating the impression that all workers face the same austerity measures.

However, there is a lot the Government must do to get its own house in order on this issue. It should tell us how all special payments, including those paid for working on Sundays, are being treated under the Croke Park deal. After all, if this economy cannot sustain Sunday payments for bar staff or hotel workers earning less than €20,000 a year, how can it sustain them for state or semi-state workers on €60,000 or more? The same is true right across the private sector.

We are in a terrible bind, and anyone lucky enough to have a job probably realises that they will have to do more for less if our economy is to recover. However, anyone who imagines that recovery can be achieved through inequity while protecting sectional interests is part of the problem rather than the solution.


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