• The Public Sector Pay Puzzle

    Who would have thought that so many different groups of public sector workers would have discovered at roughly the same time that they have been underpaid and under-resourced to such an extent?

    No one doubts that teachers of different kinds and at different levels, and health care professionals across the sector, as well as a range of other public servants, have all been under-valued over a long period. But what is surprising is that they stayed silent about their plight for such a long time.

    Being underpaid – that is, being paid less than one is worth – does not, after all, happen in the blink of an eye. It is necessarily something that develops over a period – and something that cannot happen without the victims being aware of what is happening.

    So how is it that it has only now become an issue? Why were we not made aware of complaints and protests, of strikes, and difficulties of recruitment and people leaving the profession, over the decade or more during which the underpayment phenomenon was gathering force?

    How did those who were responsible for the growing crisis across the board, those who held the purse strings at the crucial time, those who – in government – boasted of how well they were managing the public finances, get away with it?

    Why is it only now, now that the situation has crystallised and become entrenched, that government is under pressure to take urgent action? Why, when the underpayment issue took years to develop, do the efforts to remedy it suddenly have to be completed overnight?

    One is tempted to answer these questions with a shrug of the shoulders and to marvel at how successful has been a political strategy adopted by one of our two major parties. National, when in government, quite deliberately decided to hold down wages and restrict resources in the public sector. They gained, as a result, plaudits for managing their finances prudently, and for producing a government surplus, and have the been able to sit back and watch while their successors have had to find the funds to make good the shortfalls that have arisen and have copped brickbats from the public sector work force when they couldn’t do so immediately.

    Are the public servants themselves unaware of how they have been manipulated, as though they were pawns in a game of chess? Or are they willingly complicit? Did they recognise that, as a right-wing government saved money at their expense, any protests would fall on deaf ears, and opportunistically calculate that the time to make a fuss would be to wait until a government more sympathetic to their cause gained power?

    Do they imagine that striking (literally) while the iron is hot – that is, when a government committed to the public sector is in office – is at all likely to resolve their problems in the long term? Or will it not increase the chances of the return of an unsympathetic government that will launch the same damaging cycle of public sector cuts and underpaid public servants all over again?

    No one doubts the justice of their cause. But the resolution of the endemic problem of under-resourcing should not be the sole responsibility of a government that had no responsibility for creating the problem in the first place. That task must be undertaken by both government and workers working together and showing some understanding of how and why it came about, and making a joint and cooperative effort to enter upon a course of action that will produce – not a rabbit out of a hat – but a long-term solution that will last.

    Everyone – on all sides – should recognise that both rabbits and hats are in short supply.

    Bryan Gould
    9 June 2019

2 Comments

  1. brian says: June 12, 2019 at 4:02 amReply

    A government surplus , plus a external deficit equals a private sector Deficit.This means for the government to run a surplus, it means taking more money out of the economy through taxation, than they are putting in.government spending. Governments of all colours have been starving the public sector of the necessary financial support to carry out what the public expect from schools ,hospitals, etc.When the public understands that a govt. budget is not that important but the out comes it produces, and sees govt deficits as not necessary good or bad. If we want the Govt. to deliver good education, health, housing etc we need to get over obsession with the govt. running a surplus. the govt. is not like a household!

  2. Glenn says: June 16, 2019 at 4:57 amReply

    Public servants also showed restraint after the Chch earthquakes and the great financial collapse created by greedy banks. Now is their turn to reap the benefits of a rockstar economy.