During the darkest days of the recession, when nearly every worker in every sector faced bruising pay cuts and more demanding conditions — if they did not lose their job — any imposition on those employed by the State was characterised by the public sector unions as ‘an attack on the public service’.
The suggestion was that these cuts, no matter how unavoidable, might have been hatched by heartless neo-conservatives during cocktail hour at Davos and that the recession was used as an excuse to cut the public sector pay bill.
On the other side of the fence, private sector workers looked on with a mixture of astonishment and envy as tens of thousands of public employees were offered, and took, early retirement supported by golden handshakes and pension packages unimaginable in their world except for a tiny percentage at the very top of the work pyramid. In the private sector, this process meant many workers were made redundant, often at an age when a return to work was very hard, but were paid no more than statutory redundancy. For them, the idea of an early pension was, and is, laughable.
Different worlds, different realities. Private sector workers, especially the self-employed, looked on aghast as efforts to introduce reform and confront inefficiencies in public services were stonewalled. They saw bench-marking as a one-way swizz, where the attractive elements of private sector employment were copied but the demanding issues around targets, delivery and the consequences of below-par performance ignored. This impression was strengthened by reviews of performance assessments for public and civil servants — ‘the award of too many high ratings and too few low ratings is the established practice’. This was based on the implausible finding that between 2010 and 2014 less than 1% of civil service staff were rated unsatisfactory.
Of course, there is some truth on both sides of the argument. The security afforded to State employees is unparalleled but newly recruited gardaí or teachers will argue, rightly, that it comes at a very heavy price. Private sector workers, especially those on rolling contracts, where protections and benefits are as scarce as solvent defined benefit pension schemes, are still amazed at the permanence enjoyed by the majority of their public sector peers. This, naturally, leads to division and resentment that hardens attitudes and deepens division.
An initiative to tackle poor work performance by civil servants may go some way towards creating a sense of fairness and equity in how all Irish workers are treated. The Civil Service Arbitration Board, despite concerns by staff representatives, has endorsed procedures to confront under-performing civil servants — and even the most ardent defender of public services could not argue that only 1% of state employees fall into that category.
The world is becoming a colder place for all workers, a reality exemplified by the disenchanted and dispossessed cheering on Donald Trump and campaigners for Britain to quit the EU. So anything that might bring public and private sector worker together should be encouraged.
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