Public Sector Pay

John O’Hagan writes in today’s Irish Times on the topic of public sector pay: you can read it here.

14 replies on “Public Sector Pay”

Interesting article.
If one accepts the logic and implement what is advocated, then, mortgage write downs for ‘workers’ are further down the same road.
These things need to be incoporated into the discussion too.
Otherwise, these type of articles just provide a good argument with a shock value to keep the editor happy.

This is the latest of several articles by economists working for the public service who advocate cuts in their own salary. It’s interesting that there seems to be so much agreement among economists working for the public service that they, themselves, are paid too much.

It makes one wonder about the truth of some of the assumptions in classical economics about individuals pursuning their rational self interest. Presumably such economists seek to serve the public good rather than their own. This suggests that the spirit of public service is alive and well in the Irish public service, which is a very good thing.

Or a cynical person might say that they are simply worried that their state employer will go broke if there are not pay cuts across the public service, and they will find themselves out of a job entirely.

It would be interesting to know whether all public-service economists agree that they are paid too much, or whether there might be dissenters. I can imagine that full professors who bought their houses in the 1980’s now find themselves much better off than they ever expected, and possibly feeling overpaid. Whereas younger colleagues who are struggling with the high cost of Irish housing and high real interest rates might be less convinced that the solution to their problems is a pay cut.


Academics (of which I am one) have long been reputed to be more concerned about the overall scholarly environment – libraries, research spaces, quality of students, opportunities to present research, funding for research, etc – rather than pay per say. There has been some discussion in the press over the weekend about deteriorating conditions in the University sector due to substantial cuts in research funding in the sciences (and, as far as one can tell, more drastic still in the humanities and social sciences). If press reports are correct senior academics are leaving Ireland for posts in Germany, Australia and the United States which are nominally less well paid. The pay issue plays differently in academia because of international mobility (which imposes substantial costs in terms of disrupted pensions, relocation, etc), though not necessarily in a fully marketised way for the reasons noted above. Compared to the UK and the US academic pay is tied to very narrow pay scales such that all are well paid with little differentiation based on performance or scarcity other than through promotion. My former employer in the UK reviews the performance of professors every year and case has to be made for additional increments up a long scale. Consequently one imagines there is a substantial difference between the best and least well paid professors, with some being paid perhaps twice what others are paid.
It may well be that academic economists are acting in line with their own utility function by prioritising the conservation (or reduced attrition) of non-pay funding for universities over academic pay.

The article below by John Geary and Anthony Murphy presents an alternative view. It appears in the current issue of Industrial Relations News.

Cutting public sector pay: an alternative view


There is no single, best measure of the “public sector wage premium”, which varies over time and across occupations. This means that the basis on which public sector pay might be cut “is not as sound as some people claim on the basis of headline figures”, according to UCD academics, John Geary and Anthony Murphy.

The issue of public sector pay and its determination is a matter of considerable controversy. The government has stated that large cuts in public expenditure, including public sector pay, are necessary to stabilize the government deficit. The justification for pay cuts in the public sector is primarily based on the belief that public sector workers enjoy substantially superior wages in comparison to their counterparts in the private sector.

Hard evidence for a public sector “wage premium” is found in recent research from the ESRI. ESRI researchers have found that in October 2006 full time permanent public sector workers aged 25 to 59 enjoyed a “wage premium” of about 26% on average over their counterparts in the private sector, an increase of 12 percentage points on the average March 2003 premium of 14%. In the current difficult economic circumstances, this report has been followed by calls from economists both within the ESRI and elsewhere for across the board public sector wage cuts of the order of 5% to 10%. We are inclined to be more circumspect and cautious about across-the-board public sector wage cuts. Alongside the public service pension levy which was introduced in April 2009, public sector wages could fall by 17% on average in money terms, without any corresponding large fall in private sector wages.

We make this contribution not as “hurlers on the ditch”, but as researchers who have also tried to measure the size of the public sector wage premium. Indeed, the ESRI use the same statistical procedures as we have employed in recent years together with the same data sets made available by the CSO. Our analysis reveals broadly similar findings – on average, public sector workers are paid more than private sector employees, but not 26% more. The latest CSO National Employment data suggest that the average public sector premium in October 2007 was about 17%, but this average masks a huge amount of variation by gender and occupation, etc.

In reply to the ESRI’s findings, the public sector trade unions have argued that the ESRI’s research does not take proper account of the differences in the work undertaken by public and private sector workers. They claim like is not being compared with like. For example, they ask, what is the equivalent to a primary school teacher in the private sector, and how might one reasonably compare the work of An Garda Síochána with the work performed by private sector security firms?

In an effort to respond to these objections, the ESRI has used even more sophisticated statistical techniques (propensity score matching) and has claimed that it is possible to compare “like-with-like”.

We feel their confidence is misplaced. While it is our view that the CSO data does provide an accurate portrayal of wage levels and wage movements in the economy, to claim that the use of propensity score matching and more detailed (2 digit) occupation codes allows one to make precise comparisons between jobs of ostensibly similar skill profiles and responsibilities (i.e. “like-with-like”) is not correct. The job descriptors used by the CSO are simply not rich and refined enough to permit such an analysis across all occupations, nor could they reasonably be expected to be, given the form of survey research.

In other countries, public sector wage rates are established on the basis of analyses conducted by independent pay review bodies. Earnings surveys, of the type conducted by the CSO, submissions from stakeholders, consultations with unions and employers as well as job evaluation surveys form part of the assessment process.

The econometric modelling which we have conducted shows that the public sector earnings premium or discount depends on the choice of comparison group and varies a lot both across occupation groups and over time. For example, the average estimated premium is reduced by about 5% if the earnings of public sector employees are compared to those of private sector employees in large firms. The average estimated premium falls by about 3% if employees in personal and protective services (e.g. gardaí and prison officers) are excluded from the analysis. If semi-state bodies are excluded from the public sector, the average estimated premium falls by at least 2%. Moreover, as noted above, the estimated average public sector premium rose substantially between 2003 and 2006, and then fell between 2006 and 2007. This indicates that, with just four years survey data on individual earnings in the public and private sector, one needs to be careful about inferring medium term trends in the overall public sector premium.

Our point is therefore this: the CSO datasets are an important resource and should be used to inform public policy making, but not to the exclusion of other research methodologies and inputs.

A second reason for caution is that the ESRI’s research is necessarily limited. It does not examine pay movements in the wider economy and, as such, its analysis of changes in the public sector premium is incomplete. For example, consider the large inflow of migrant workers from the new member states (NMS) and elsewhere, many of whom are likely to return home in the next few years. Between 2002 and 2006 the number of NMS nationals increased from 20,000 to 126,000. The vast bulk of these workers gained employment in the private sector, particularly in manufacturing, construction, wholesale/retail trade and hotels and catering. Relatively few gained employment in the public sector.

What was the effect of this massive influx of migrants on the labour market and wage patterns? We have tried to estimate the size of this effect on private sector wage levels. This is not an easy exercise, nor can it be said to be without limitations given the available data. However, to the extent we have been able to pin down this effect, we found that wage rates did not increase as quickly in those parts of the private sector where migrants were employed in significant numbers. Further, our preliminary results suggest that a rise in the share of migrants in an occupation group is associated with reduced earnings. Indeed, a 5 percentage point rise in the share of migrants in a given sector may have reduced earnings by up to one and a quarter percent. Thus it would seem that where migrant workers gained employment in large numbers in the private sector they acted as a brake on wage growth.

It is not that we decry such developments for they might be fairly claimed to be necessary to improve Irish industry’s competitiveness, as long as decent standards of employment are maintained and fair wages are paid. However, there is exploitation of workers, many of whom are migrants. Such exploitation is difficult to capture in surveys of earnings administered to employers, yet it is apparent from evidence arising from workplace inspections carried out by the National Employment Rights Authority. Breaches of employment law were found to highest in hotel and catering, retail, construction, contract cleaning and security. Such exploitation is less likely in the public sector, not only because of the protection offered by trade unions, but because of the state’s ethos of maintaining a model of good employment.

We do not suggest that proponents of large across-the-board wage cuts in the public sector are seeking to drive down standards of employment. But a full discussion of wage levels and movements in the Irish economy, does beg certain questions which will not be easy to resolve: by what standards will wages be set, at what level will ‘harmonisation’ be sought, and by what means will wages be determined?

The latter question is critically important. The danger, as we see it, is that if the ESRI’s results are taken as sacrosanct and as legitimate grounds for imposing large wage cuts in the public sector, there will be considerable industrial strife.

At the time of writing, the prospect of reaching an agreed and peaceful solution is poor. For over twenty years, social partnership has provided a forum for dialogue on wage negotiations between the social partners. One important outcome of these deliberations has been the significant decline in levels of industrial conflict, such as strikes, to record-low levels. But the shine has gone out of partnership, not only for economists – many of whom identify partnership as being part of the problem and therefore cannot now be part of any viable solution – but also for many trade unionists. Many unionist leaders, who were proponents of partnership, have grown increasingly disillusioned with the failure, as they see, of the government to engage in meaningful talks. They argue that there is little to which they might point to as success, and by which they might defend partnership, so as to prevail upon their colleagues to be patient and to strive for a solution through “jaw-jaw” rather than “war-war”. Critics of social partnership have gained significant ground.

The risks could not be more serious for all sides. If the government insists on imposing large cuts in public wage on the basis of broad brush, headline figures, and in the absence of meaningful dialogue and negotiation, it is certain there will be industrial conflict of a form and bitterness we have not witnessed for many decades. Membership disaffection is running high. Witness, for example, the mandate received by union leaders in the largest public sector union, IMPACT, to pursue industrial action – 86% of the membership has voted in favour. Compare this to the failure of the same union’s leadership to receive a mandate to pursue industrial action in opposition to the public service pension levy in the Spring. Other unions have also gained majority support from their members to pursue industrial action.

But there are enormous risks for unions as well. Despite the best efforts of union representatives to portray the government’s response to the economic crisis as an attack on all workers – private and public – it is clear that such unity will be very difficult to maintain. There is also a danger of divisions between public sector unions. The 24/7 Alliance group of unions (gardaí, nurses, ambulance drivers etc., who provide round-the-clock public services) are seeking to preserve their pay, a large portion of which is made up of allowance and premia payments. Other public sector workers do not rely on such additional payments. If the government seeks to preserve base pay but reduce allowance payments, the former group risk significant reductions in their standards of living. In these circumstances, it will thus be exceedingly difficult for senior union leaders to navigate towards a solution while preserving union unity.

These are very delicate moments in Irish industrial relations. What is needed is a voice of fairness and judgment. But one thing is certainly clear, a move on public sector pay which involves government by fiat and justified on the basis of headline research findings which are very open to debate, will result in a return to industrial strife and sectionalism, with huge costs both in terms of the country’s economic fortunes and social cohesion.

In summary, we argue:

The risk of imposing wage cuts across the board in the public sector is that it will result in industrial strife with huge costs both in terms of the country’s economic fortunes and social cohesion.
There is no single, best measure of the public sector wage premium. The estimated premium varies over time and across occupations. It also varies across the income distribution and at the upper end of the distribution, is often a discount. It is also difficult to find good “like-for-like” comparison groups for some public sector occupations. Thus, the basis on which public sector pay might be cut is not as sound as some people claim on the basis of headline figures.
Setting the correct ‘bar’ for public sector pay is a difficult one, and can be influenced by many factors including poor standards of employment in the private sector – so we have to find some way of factoring this into our assessment.

John Geary is Professor of Industrial Relations at UCD Business School and Dr Anthony Murphy is an economist and Fellow of Hertford College, University of Oxford.

There was a piece in the Irish Independent a few months ago talking about pay levels in the public service.

Richard Tol was one of the interviewees. He looks like a relatively young chap like myself.

I remember him saying how ludicrous it was the excessive salary he was been paid compared to a similar type of role on the continent.

You do get a bit of a shock when you visit the HR sections of TCD and UCD websites to realise just how well paid and pensioned people working in these Institutions are. It is entirely appropriate that an Academic such as John O’Hagan should point this out and more appropriate that Presidents of these Institutions do something about it. When you are self employed unpensioned and take serious financial and other risks every day it is indeed hard to put up with some of the Academics who are experts on everything in business and economics having never worked at the sharp end of the business spectrum during their working lives. A bit more humility and reality from some of these people in their utterances on TV and in the papers and at conferences on the state of the economy might be helpful. Some might ponder over what it is like in real life business where for every €100 of marginal sales income a self employed person earns that the Government will take €73 in VAT, Income Tax, Income Levies, Health Levies, PRSI and Employer’s PRSI and this is where you are considered to be “Rich” because you earn more than €75,036 if you are lucky which is half the salary of some of the “Learned” Professors. BTW I am stating “some” and I am looking in the direction of D4.

While I’m sure the upper echelons are over-paid, is this not the inevitable consequence of having linked their pay to that of politicians?

That’s bye and bye.

The point I’d like to make is that if public pay was really 20% over equivalent pay in the private sector would their not have been a visible measurable brain drain from private to public sector, at least in the years leading up to 2007, when public service jobs were relatively easy to get.

Or has economics abandoned all pretence at being a science?

Tim O’Halloran


Your answer in a word is “mobility”. Or more specifically, the lack thereof.

The public sector (outside of the health sector and possibly also senior academia) uses highly restrictive hiring practices, which act as barrier to entry for all but entry-level/start-of-career type positions. Rigid pay-scales and the confinement of almost all promotional positions to serving public servants, makes a mid-career switch from private to public near impossible.

At the moment our private sector cannot afford the public sector. It is acknowledged that public sector pay is at least 20% higher than we can afford.
A reduction is essential as these pay rates were set at a time of an overflowing public purse. The same can be said for social welfare payment levels.
But it should not be forgotten that it was at these levels of income that mortgage and personal loan debt was accrued. It was at these levels of income that energy prices,health insurance costs, G.P visit costs and public transport costs were set.
A reduction in wage levels while leaving all the costs untouched will cause untold hurt and will rightly lead to civil unrest.
Without a level of fairness a wage reduction will be impossible to sell.
I am not a public sector employee I am a small business owner and have recieved a 50% reduction in earnings.
Economists should be using their new found public forum to debate ways to reduce wages without doing untold damage to the standard of living of workers. It can be done.

@Proposition Joe

“The public sector (outside of the health sector and possibly also senior academia) uses highly restrictive hiring practices,”

Like what?

@Eamonn Kehoe

Are you familiar with the phrase:

“This position is only open to serving public servants”

Or how about:

“Appointments are made on the basis of seniority”

Or maybe this one will jog your memory:

“Entry is normally at the first point on the salary scale”

@Proposition Joe.

From my own experience I have not come across these obstacles.
I joined the public service 9 years ago. I applied for the job, did the interview and got the job. I wasnt put at the bottom of the scale but moved up the scale according to my levels of experience and qualifications.

A friend who had 20 years experience also applied for a job but the jobs advertised salary was not high enough for her level of experience and years of work. So he was accomodated. The organisation wanted him so he was accomodated. So the system in my experience is not as rigid as you say.

@Eamonn K

“A friend who had 20 years experience also applied for a job but the jobs advertised salary was not high enough for _her_ level of experience and years of work. So _he_ was accomodated. The organisation wanted _him_ so _he_ was accomodated. So the system in my experience is not as rigid as you say.”

Surely gender re-assignment is too big a price to pay, no matter how good the job!

The rigidities are there, no doubt about it. Throughout the boom, almost no external candidates could be directly recruited into the Civil Service at HEO level or above. After much cajoling of the unions, this has recently has been relaxed somewhat so that a small number of outsiders could be taken on at middle management grades, but this not happened much in practice and is unlikely to happen anytime soon with the recruitment embargo.

Another example is the lucrative “A” and “B” posts in the education sector, allocated strictly on seniority. This is a massive disincentive against making a mid-career move into teaching … someone with actual management experience in the private sector would find themselves shut out of these management posts (worth 6k a year) by virtue of being shoved to the back of the queue.

I could go on with many other examples …

There may be restrictions blocking recruitment in the public service , I don’t really know,I’m a little out of touch,

However I do remember applying (unsuccessfully) for the fast-track Administrative Officer in the civil service all of 25 years ago, so it seems to me there has been a mechanism to get people straight in at quite a high level in the civil service and yet still we are told there was a fatal lack of economists in the Department of Finance in the leadup to the crash. Private sector economists keep telling us the public sector is over-paid and yet they never thought to leave their own supposedly under-paid jobs with banks and stockbroking firms to go to work for the over paying Department of Finance.

Someone is telling porkies.

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