‘Comrade Newton’ ignores the fact NI’s best jobs are in the public sector


Below is the text of a response to yesterday’s op-ed by Newton Emerson in the Irish News. The newspaper offered to print a far-shortened version on the letters page, an offer declined for the following reason. Pluralism means more than having a letters page; it requires meaningful discussion on a level platform. I am not suggesting equal space for a response to every op-ed published by a newspaper. I am, however, taking issue with the consensus on the economy operating throughout the press across NI and notably the Irish News, a consensus which is at considerable variance to the expressed policies of the political parties supported by the Irish News and its readers.

There are different viewpoints on the economy and how this society should work. A consensus viewpoint can be as ideological as a contrary view. I think that NI requires and deserves a debate which goes a little deeper than that of “CBI press releases and the soothing thoughts of bank-employed economists” and Owen Patterson, repeating the same silly point as Newton in today’s Belfast Telegraph (not online yet). Such dissenting views deserve an occasional airing. The economic situation we are facing compels discussion, and not some half-informed consensus.

A Response to Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson’s column in yesterday’s Irish News raises some important matters which are well worth airing in the current climate of cuts. Unfortunately, he seems to be looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Fortunately for Comrade Newton, his point of view is that which passes as the conventional wisdom among the local commentariat, that “herd of independent minds” which invariably come to the same conclusion.

The facts are not as clear as those presented by Comrade Newton and almost every other columnist and pundit when it comes to the economy of Northern Ireland.

The pay gap between public and private sector workers is typically presented as ‘pampered’ public servants lording it over private sector workers on one-fifth less wages. One has visions of civil servants waving wads of cash in the faces of shop assistants, bellowing “Loadsamoney!”

And yet, with one of those coincidental statistics that the commentariat do not highlight, the disparity can be explained otherwise. Private sector pay is 20 per cent less than the GB average for private sector workers. Public servants in NI are paid the same as public servants in GB. The disparity is with the private sector across the UK, and has nothing to do with public servants wages and conditions, except for one thing – trade union membership.

Most public servants are in trade unions. Most private employees are not. However, private sector workers who are in trade unions tend to have better wages and conditions, such as holidays, training and pensions. If Newton is so concerned about underpaid workers in call centres and shops, he ought to be calling for them to join trade unions, or be allowed to by their bosses.

There are other silly comparisons made by Newt, such as those made recently by the CBI. The employers ‘union’ has a habit of making misleading comparisons between the ‘median’ wages across the public and private sectors, and more recently, has been demanding greater curbs on the legal activities of trade unions to act in the interests of their members and, we would argue, the idea of a fair and decent society.

‘Median’ measures a simple midpoint on a scale encompassing the salaries of every public servant from part-time cleaners to the Lord Chief Justice. What tends to be missed by the conventional wisdom of the CBI and its spear-carriers is that wages in the public sector tend to be higher due to the type of jobs and the skills required to perform them.

There are twice as many graduates working in the public sector, in areas such as education and health and sundry white-collar occupations which require degrees and diplomas. The private sector in Northern Ireland is dominated by small businesses and the rise of less skilled service jobs as skilled jobs in manufacturing disappear.

Even attempts to conflate the ‘types’ of work are pointless. It is like comparing a highly trained and motivated PSNI officer with a security guard in a cheap uniform deterring shoplifters. Certain well-paid jobs are in the public sector because the private sector simply could not do it. These occupations require skills and the sort of dedication which one does not expect of call centre workers. They mean years of penury while being educated to meet the task. The jobs themselves often involve physical and mental risk. The rewards these workers receive reflect their specialised knowledge. That is why the ‘medium’ wage appears higher in the public sector.

The public sector is not responsible for the grim status faced by too many private sector workers. It takes some mental agility to assume that punishing teachers and prison officers is somehow going to make the situation of exploitation rife across the private sector more just or fair. It is like demanding that vegetarians be given diabetes because meat-eaters are more likely to have heart complaints. Or that BBC journalists take massive pay cuts because one columnist thinks that £21,000 is anything but low pay.

That is the view from the other end of the telescope. It is a bigger and more generous view than what Newton sees as “every informed speech, statement and article on the subject over the past six months.” Comrade Newton is boasting about his own ignorance. I suggest that he get out more and read a little wider than his comfort bubble, lined by CBI press releases and the soothing thoughts of bank-employed economists and ambitious, but underpaid, business hacks.