Peter Connell: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Surely a good epithet for much of what masquerades as analysis of our current crisis. And there’s no more eloquent commentator than Senator Eoghan Harris. Harris is passionate about ideas. From intellectual powerhouse of the Workers' Party to speech writer for David Trimble and public advocate for Bertie Ahern, ideas are his stock in trade.
And his latest big idea is to see high public sector wages as the obstacle to resolving our current economic crisis. Public sector pay and pensions is ‘the fattest of fat cats’. His solution, as outlined in last Sunday’s piece, is to bring public sector wages and penions back to their 2003 level. Harris dismisses Fintan O’Toole’s recently publish book Enough is Enough on the grounds that in offering solutions to the crisis the author fails to address the ‘scandal’ of high public sector pay. What we need, according to Harris are facts, or ‘awkward facts’ as he calls them. But all he offers are pronouncements and second hand, second rate analysis. Such as ‘Irish teachers are the best paid in Europe’. Of course this simply isn’t true. Harris doesn’t quote the source of his statement, he doesn’t do primary research. The awkward facts are available from the OECD (2008 data). Since 2008 teachers have had a 2.5% pay increase in October 2008 followed by pay cuts of, on average, 12-15%% (pension levy in March 2009 and pay cut in January 2010). So, if we examine the data published by the OECD, and assuming a modest 3% increase for teachers in other countries since 2008, we find that the starting salary for a primary school teacher in Ireland is below that of Luxemburg, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Scotland, England and Finland. At the top of a long incremental scale Irish national school teachers are well paid but less well paid than those in Luxemburg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Portugal. Exactly the same pattern is true of second level teachers. When I last checked my atlas all of these were European countries.
Harris’s ‘research’ also claims that Irish secondary school teachers ‘take the most holidays [in Europe]’. Again, let’s consult the OECD for some awkward facts regarding actual teaching hours. According to Chart D4 in Education at a Glance 2010, at lower secondary level Irish teachers spend 720 hours in class each year, above the OECD average of 703 and above that of 17 other European countries. His snide remarks about teacher’s holidays simply expose his bias.
When it comes to public sector pay Senator Harris is equally sloppy in his research. The public sector pay bill has increased significantly since 2003 but that’s more a reflection of increased public sector numbers than any pay bonanza for your average public sector worker. Let’s look at some more awkward facts. Our starting point is June 2003 when the first phase of the infamous benchmarking award was paid. Let’s say our employee is awarded a 10% increase under benchmarking. Between June 2003 and October 2008 (s)he enjoyed ten pay increases, three arising from benchmarking, three from the Sustaining Progress agreement and three from Towards 2016. The total percentage increase up to that point was 27%, when inflation over the same period was just over 20%. So, a 7% increase in real gross income. Not bad, but not a bonanza. Since October 2008 pay cuts amounting to about 13% have been imposed. Add in deflation of -5.5% and we find that the average public sector worker in 2010 has a gross salary 14% higher than in 2003 while inflation over the same period was 15%. So, in terms of gross income public sector workers are right back to where they were in 2003. Add in recently imposed income and health levies and Harris’s notion of the average public sector worker being a ‘fat cat’ is simply indefensible. He rightly feels empathy with private sector workers who have lost their jobs. He singularly fails to relate to the experience of low and middle income public sector workers who, like their private sector colleagues, are seeing their living standards assailed on all sides.
Harris claims that ‘the Government could find the €6bn it needs by simply cutting back public pay and pensions to 2003 levels’. The public sector pay and pensions bill is about €21.8 billion. To save a net €6 billion the gross bill would have to be cut by at least €8.5 billion or by almost 40%. The reason is that public servants pay PAYE, health levies, income levies, PRSI and make pension contributions to the State. Cut their pay and you cut all these sources of income to the State. Cuts don’t translate into savings. It’s a mistake repeated by most commentators. It’s simple maths. Senator Harris should try it some time.