Thursday 22 August 2019

It's time to tackle high pay levels

WE ARE heading for a showdown with public sector and semi-state workers over high pay and cosy working conditions that the country can neither afford nor tolerate and, despite the apparent reluctance of the Government to tackle the thorny issue, the sooner it happens the better.

Ordinary taxpayers who are lucky enough to still have jobs are aghast at the continuing revelations about pay levels in the public service and in semi-state companies like Coillte, the Dublin Airport Authority and others. While there is sympathy with the lover level or so-called 'frontline' workers, people throughout the country are dumbstruck at the amounts being paid to senior managers and civil servants and at the terms and conditions they enjoy and defend tenaciously. Then there's the truly shocking payoffs and pensions that are being scooped up by the crème de la crème of the public service, the banks and the political elite, some of whom played leading roles in the tragi-comedy of Ireland's economic collapse.

There are hard workers and underpaid workers in the public service, let there be no doubt about that. There are teachers, council road-workers, nurses and A&E staff who work hard for their pay and are entitled to fell sore at the cuts they have endured.

But behind them are layer upon layer of unseen officials, managers and assorted bureaucrats. We know little of what they do or what justifies their existence or the billions of euro they are paid out of the pockets of hard-pressed taxpayers.

This farcical situation really took wing during the boom years when it was argued that the public service needed the best minds available and the only way to attract them was to pay top dollar, otherwise they would be sucked up by private-sector businesses who were throwing money around like confetti.

Well we paid the top rates but it would be hard to say we got value for money, given that some of these same brilliant minds were at their desks as the country went into economic freefall.

The kind of pay levels we're talking about are truly staggering. More than 200 state employees are earning over €200,000 a year; of these, 66 are paid more than the Taoiseach's lavish €228,466 salary and many earn over €500,000 a year. Ironically, the head of Nama is one of the top paid civil servants with a salary and bonus package of more than €840,000 a year.

Then there's the semi-state sector where the head of the ESB earns €750,000 a year, the head of the DAA earns €568,000, and it goes on down to the lowest-paid top executive in a semi-state company, the head of Dublin Port, who earns a humble €317,000 a year.

These figures are simply stunning. Most people put in hard graft for their entire working lives and have less to show for it at the end of the day than some of these people earn in a year.

These might be the most brilliant people of all time and, without doubt, they think they're worth it, but nobody with the remotest grasp of reality can think this can be allowed to continue.

The largesse doesn't stop with top managers either. In the semistate sector, for example, pay levels are generous to say the least of it. In CIE the average pay is over €54,000, in the ESB it's over €94,000, in Coillte over €63,000. Sure, these are skilled, capable, dedicated people, but from the point of view of equally skilled and dedicated private sector workers these pay levels are eye-watering.

This whole situation has to be brought to a halt. The whole idea of paying handsome, and more than handsome, wages to a cosseted sector while the country sinks further into debt and recession is completely unacceptable to ordinary workers and taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill. Even if we could afford it, this kind of largesse isn't right because it creates a two-tier system where one kind of worker is protected on the backs of others.

This inequality is unfair and unjust, particularly in these difficult times and no right thinking person is willing to put up with it. The Government may be reluctant to get stuck into the fight that will be involved in tackling this issue, but there is no alternative and the sooner the battle starts the better.

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