Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Ceisteanna (101)

Richard Boyd Barrett


101. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will consider the call from trade unions and civil society for a four-day week across the public sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26724/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (17 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Public)

Deputy Boyd Barrett has been lucky in the lottery.

I have a little luck for a change.

You should buy a ticket tomorrow night, Deputy.

The Fórsa trade union has launched a campaign to introduce a four-day week. It is something that people on the left, including trade unionists and socialists, have argued for a long time would be a good measure. It is even more appropriate now that we should consider introducing a four-day week given the pandemic and the vast numbers of people who have lost their jobs. I am keen to hear the Minster's response to the proposal.

I am aware of the FourDayWeek campaign led by Fórsa, ICTU and other civil society groups. Many of the implications of this proposal need to be carefully considered for the entire labour force and not simply in the public service. Indeed, any movement by the public service in isolation could have serious consequences for small and medium-sized businesses struggling in the face of Covid-19.

I will deal with the public services as the Deputy has asked. However, I would first like to make the point that the State is already a good employer that offers staff considerable flexibility through the availability of, among other things, work sharing, flexible working hours, shorter working years, career breaks and now remote working.

In my role as Minister, I have to ensure that quality public services are delivered to the people in a manner that delivers value for money to the taxpayer. There are two core issues associated with any transition to a four-day week for the public service. The first is the cost to the taxpayer and the second is ensuring continuity of services to the public. Estimating the full Exchequer cost of the proposal would be highly complex as it would encompass more than 342,000 public servants across almost 200 organisations. At a very high level, paying people for four days but providing services to the citizen over five, and in some cases seven, days would add at least one fifth to the current pay bill of approximately €20 billion. That equates to an extra €4 billion, which would have to be found to deliver the same level of services. In reality, an extra €4 billion is probably a conservative estimate as gaps would likely be filled though overtime payments and additional cover from agency staffing, both of which come at a considerable premium. It is unclear how increased productivity alone could offset the cost in the context of keeping essential services open. Practical issues will arise for the Garda, members of the fire brigade, nurses in hospitals and so on operating a four-day week. I can go into that in a moment.

I am unsure whether people remember this but when I was studying geography in school, amazingly, the geography book said that by the time we got to around now, the 2020s, the biggest problem society would have would be that because of technological advance, we would all be working a three-day week and we would be trying to figure out things to do in all our leisure time.

How wrong they were.

The suggestion was that technology would confer great benefits in respect of labour saving and increased productivity. We got all the increased productivity. However, instead of this improving the quality of life of workers, the opposite has happened. We even had, as part of the austerity programme, the infamous Lansdowne Road hours, adding hours rather than reducing them.

I do not accept that we would see a fall-off in services. In fact, countries that have shorter working weeks have higher levels of productivity. A happier workforce, one with a better quality of life, is a more productive workforce. I believe the Minster is wrong in his argument.

Is the Deputy advocating that for politicians as well?

We are only working three days in here.

Deputy Boyd Barrett may speak for himself.

I am unsure whether the Deputy is advocating that people would work for four days and be paid for five days or would work for four days and be paid for four days. In any event, there are real consequences for key parts of our public services. Let us consider teachers for example. Is Deputy Boyd Barrett suggesting that schools would only open for four days per week and not for five? We need to think about the implications this would create for families, childcare issues and so on. Other front-line services, including gardaí, members of the fire service, nurses and doctors would be affected. I am not at all clear on exactly how it would work in practice.

There should be acknowledgement that the State is a good employer. I have offered some examples, including the shorter working year, work sharing, flexitime, career breaks and, increasingly, remote working, which is a feature that is here to stay. There is an ambition in the programme for Government to deliver that.

Many public servants are earning less now than they were ten years ago during austerity. They have not had their pay restored and they are working longer hours. Let us think about our nurses.

They are overrun and underpaid and there is pay apartheid. The same is true for our teachers, and there is pay apartheid even for the service officers and ushers here in the House, who are paid different rates depending on when they came into the place. I would not, therefore, laud the treatment of public servants. Some, perhaps, are very well paid and well treated, but others not so.

That is a somewhat separate argument, and, of course, there are complexities and nuances to a four-day week, but it is about establishing the basic principle. Once upon a time, the weekend was considered impossible and there was no such thing. We then got a weekend because people fought for it, and society and the economy were better for it. The very same principle can apply to the four-day week,s and it is not about cutting people's pay.

I would not like to accuse the Deputy of trying to cut people's pay. He put the question in the context of the public service only but this issue has to be examined in the round, for the private sector as well. I am sure he is not suggesting one treatment for public servants while people working in shops, factories and offices would continue to work a five-day week-----

The question would have been moved if I had mentioned everybody else.

We would still have taken the question. The Deputy said there were nuances and complexities, and there are very real ones, such as the example I gave of schools. Does he suggest they should open for only four days a week? This is an issue that would benefit from social dialogue. We need to put a new structure in place to facilitate a full dialogue involving civic society, with employers, the public service, unions and other important stakeholders.

Deputy Carroll MacNeill is not present to ask her question.

Question No. 102 replied to with Written Answers.