I’ve had a lot of fairly random jobs over the years. I’ve done the bar work, the secretarial, worked on market stalls and, of course, have plied my trade as a freelance journalist. Most of these jobs were the kind you do for the money, rather than in any hope of a lasting, fulfilling career. In my younger days I firmly subscribed to the philosophy that a job was something to pay the rent but it would never take the place of what I saw as a vocation – the pursuit of art. This pursuit, I told myself should be kept pure, unsullied by pecuniary concerns (I must have been pretty insufferable in my teens and twenties).
Back then – this would have been in the days before tiger economies, back when most people probably thought that prosecco was some kind of weird fungus – my friends and I would joke about the wage slaves we saw droning away around us. We were living la belle vie bohemiene. To take a job that would tie you to an office for the next forty years was anathema. When someone started talking about sitting the civil service exam we would shake our heads sadly. It could only ever be selling out.
One by one we grew up. The guys cut their hair, the girls started to wear high heels and skirt suits. A few did sit that exam. Some were accepted. The rest of us discovered that a vocation really needs to earn its way in the real world. We made compromises, discovered that coffee could be served many different ways and that prosecco was cheap enough to celebrate life’s smaller victories. Those of us who never sat those exams grumbled about not getting time off when we needed it, the cost of work clothes and pensions, how being on your feet all day was ruinously hard on shoes. At one stage or another we lost jobs suddenly, without warning, or had to hold down two or three different gigs to see all the bills paid. We lamented toothless or nonexistent unions. Looked on mortgages as an impossible dream.
Back in my temping days I worked in both the public and the private sector. I’ve seen how it works in banks and stockbrokers and I’ve seen how it works in government committees, semi states and hospitals. It was very illuminating. It was common knowledge that if you wanted the cushy life you held out for a public sector job. It was worth it for the holidays and the allowances alone. As the years went by I stopped looking at those who’d sat the exams as sell outs but as cute hoors who’d jumped onto the gravy train before the door was slammed.
Over the past week or so there’s been a lot of talk about public service allowances. When Brendan Howlin, the minister with responsibility for public service reform, announced that he had been unable to make the necessary cuts in these allowances people started looking at exactly what was being talked about. If you’re interested the full list is here. I’ve worked in private companies that have won awards for how they treat their staff but none of them offered to buy me lingerie. There might have been massages laid on on a Friday (at €5 for 15 minutes) but you didn’t get paid any extra for answering the phone. In fact, reception gigs were ones I used to pass on since the hourly rate was usually less than I’d earn standing in for a PA. I’ve spent days binding, photocopying and filing and no one upped my wages – it was what I was being paid for in the first place.
Whenever there’s a discussion about the Croke Park agreement or public sector pay, someone will wave the flag of the poor put-upon gardai, or teachers or nurses. This means there’s never a proper discussion about the culture of entitlement that exists across the board in the public service. I had the dubious fortune of starting to work in a hospital while the private clerical staff were on a go-slow over some problem with benchmarking. It was hard to tell they were on a go slow though because there were so many of us temps covering lengthy holidays that things were stuck at a pretty slow pace anyway. But every coffee break there would be talk of unions and hard line tactics if the government didn’t play ball. I pointed out one day that the pay we were on was above anything I’d got working at a similar level in the corporate world. I got looked at with blank incomprehension and was told to shut up.
I get that the workplace benefits in a lot of these public sector jobs are the result of lengthy wrangling from the unions and those victories were keenly felt and seen as totally justifiable but that’s the view from inside the bubble. The cold hard fact is that those of us in the private sector might dream of those kind of workplace perks but we’d be laughed out of it if we suggested anything similar to bosses. The sad fact is that private sector workers, where the jobs are less certain and the wages are lower, do not even have the protection of strong unions to fight their corner. The unions are strong in the public sector. Hence the wonderful hard-won allowances.
I’m simplifying things a little. There are hard, badly paid public sector jobs and there are very comfortable, well paid private sector ones but there’s a reason why we used to be told to get a public service job if we could. It’s a job for life with damned good perks and that’s what it’s always been about. The workplace might be scruffier and the computers might be older but for time off, work life balance, a job for life that’ll make getting a mortgage a hell of a lot easier than any freelance proposition, the gravy train is still chugging on. I’ll concede that some of those contentious allowances date from a time long before benchmarking when every penny needed to be fought for just as hard as we are familiar with in the private sector but those dark days have come again and it’s time to be realistic.
We still view the world here in Ireland through the tinted lenses of the long dead tiger. Too many people still think that having to get their fizz from Lidl rather than Fallon & Byrnes is the bottom line. The standard of living is still pretty good. If you’re old, enough think back to the 80s or even the early 90s. It was all a lot more seat of the pants. There’s a hell of a lot further we could fall if the going gets tough enough. Many people have already found that out. It simply isn’t fair if one section of society is enjoying a security that no one else can hope for. It’s even worse that they take it so much for granted that they deny it’s the case at all. It’s going to have to change and when it does it won’t be an attack on the poor beleaguered public servants, it’ll be yet another of these horrible cuts we’ve seen so many of. It’ll be a sad thing that future generations won’t have the chance of an exam that can give a lifetime of security even if the job might not be the most fascinating. It’ll be one of those things that get consigned to history and mourned. One of the casualties of this modern messed up world. But denying there needs to be a change, and hanging on for grim death is taking the rest of us for idiots and it’s going to have to stop.