In the Republic of Ireland social workers have had pay cuts of up to 10% forced on them. Nuala Macklin reports on how this is affecting a familiarly overstretched, under-resourced but, relative to the UK, well-paid workforce
The economic crisis which unfolded in 2008 and the massive budget deficits that followed have seen governments across Europe adopt austerity programmes.
Pay for public sector workers has been cut as finance ministers attempt to balance the books in Spain, Italy and, recently, Ireland, where social workers have been adjusting to a 7.5% average pay cut since January.
Practitioners have been forced to cut their cloth to adapt to lower wages. One is Ineke Durville, president of the Irish Association of Social Workers and a practising senior social worker.
“I’ve had to adjust to a 14% cut in pay,” she says. “Naturally, I’ve had to cut back on things like clothes and other extras.”
Average salaries for public sector workers in Ireland have been reduced by 5% for staff earning up to €30,000, 7.5% for salaries of up to €40,000, and 10% for those earning up to €55,000.
The starting salary for newly qualified social workers according to the national pay scale in Ireland has fallen from €38,000 (£31,000) to £29,800 (€ 36,000), while the upper salary limit for senior social workers has dropped from €66,500 (£55,000) to €62,300 (£51,700).
Ireland now has a budget deficit of 14% of GDP – the highest in the Eurozone – compared with 11% in the UK. Ireland’s finance minister Brian Lenihan plans to reduce the deficit to below 3% of GDP by 2014, finding an average of €2bn in extra cuts each year for the next four years.
In England, councils are having to make savings of £1.165bn as part of the Treasury’s plan to save £6.2bn from the public purse in 2010-11, and unions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have yet to agree a pay deal with Local Government Employers, which has ruled out any pay increases for this financial year.
Irish unions were consulted in talks to slash the state payroll last year and responded by tabling cost-saving measures, which were rejected. This led to talks breaking down, as Niall Shanahan, spokesperson for Impact, which represents 1,300 social workers – about half the national workforce – recalls.
“Rather than discuss the implications of these measures, the government rejected them because it was politically the most popular option at the time,” he says.
For Durville, the government’s handling of the issue still rankles.
“There was no debate,” she says. “We were just told this was going to happen, it became law and the pay cuts were imposed in January. In reality, we’ve been hit twice in the past 12 months when we were faced with a 7% pensions levy last July.”
However, unions were forced to accept the reality: that there is no longer any financial space in which to negotiate working conditions. The alternative could lead to job losses – the same argument being used by employers in the UK during the current round of pay negotiations.
Durville agrees that there was a widely held view that the public sector in Ireland had become bloated. Few could argue that the annual €20bn public sector wage bill was sustainable in a country with a population of 4.5 million and unemployment at 13%.
“There’s a lot of anger out there towards public sector workers. There is this perception that we have secure jobs for life with Rolls-Royce pensions at the other end waiting for us on retirement.”
But Durville says social workers in Ireland are refusing to let the pay cuts affect their morale.
“In spite of the pay cuts, our members remain stoic and are getting on with the job,” she says. “As far as social workers are concerned, we’re already grossly under-resourced at the frontline. How much further back can you go from here?
“We have 2,700 social workers in Ireland. In England there is a ratio of one social worker per 500 clients whereas, by my estimate, in Ireland a social worker will have an average of 1,500 clients. Seven hundred of our members are involved in the childcare sector, and there are more than 5,500 children in care in the country at the moment.”
Nevertheless, despite the pay cuts, social workers in Ireland still enjoy, on average, about 10% higher wages than their UK counterparts.
Professor Alistair Christie, head of University College Cork’s department of applied social studies, says the reasons behind the higher salaries for public sector workers “can probably be linked to the government’s traditional ploy of keeping professionals and civil servants ‘on boarde_SSRq.” He adds: “Ireland has a centralised government where this cultural tradition of high pay scales has never changed. Also, educational standards are high in Ireland with most social workers holding a master’s degree. These qualifications don’t come cheap.”
Regarding the impact of cuts in social workers pay, Christie, a social work lecturer, says: “The impression I get is that people are just glad to have a job, and this factor outweighs the issue of money.”
In June the Irish Congress of Trade Unions voted to accept the recommendations of the “Croke Park talks” between the unions and government. This deal enshrines a conditional guarantee of no further pay cuts within the next four years together with changes to the working environment and greater efficiencies in public services.
And although the Irish government plans to reduce the number of state employees over the coming years, the Health Service Executive, which runs health and social care, is in the process of recruiting an extra 200 social workers over the next six months.
This follows a recommendation from a wide-ranging inquiry led by Mr Justice Ryan, published in 2009, which found sexual abuse of children was endemic in residential institutions in Ireland.
Yet Durville warns that these appointments will be “a drop in the ocean if you consider the number we actually need in order to do our job”. Social workers in Ireland are struggling without any administrative support, she says, which has become an even bigger issue than pay.
“If anything, morale is more affected by the practical difficulties social workers here face in doing the job they’ve chosen to do,” Durville says. “There needs to be an admission on the part of the government that, if they continue to cut staff and resources, we can’t keep doing the job. People are leaving the profession because the job is so hard. I can’t blame them.”
‘I have lost €6,000 but at least I still have a job I love’
A senior social work practitioner in Dublin explains how the cuts have affected her*
“The Celtic Tiger, the euphemistic title used to describe the unprecedented economic boom in Ireland in the 10 years before the onset of the recession in 2008, didn’t do much for social workers.
“This time last year, my annual salary was €65,000 (£54,000). After the cuts. I now receive €59,000 (£49,000), less my pension contribution and pay-related income tax. But you just get on with the jobyou don’t have any other choice.
“I know that, compared with the UK practitioners, our salaries are a lot higher here. But the volume of work here is way heavier. The overall effect means a lot less money today.
“But because of the nature of the work, it’s not as though you’re going to hold back; you just get on with it and do your best.
“It’s not our clients’ fault that we get less money. We certainly do work hard for what we earn, but I’m not complaining. You can see the pressure in the poorer communities which is where most of our work is every day.
“And when you look at the unemployment figures here which are growing every day, it’s a bit frightening.
“At least I have a job. It’s a tough job but it’s a job that I love doing.”
* She did not wish to be named
This article is published in the 24 June 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Getting on with the job”