Belfast Telegraph

Public sector wage divide soars: Gap in public and private sector pay packets widens to 45% in Northern Ireland

By David Elliott

The pay gap between Northern Ireland's public and private sector workers is wider than at any time since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Average pay in the public sector is now a staggering 45.3% higher than that for private sector worker. It has risen from 44.9% last year and is more than double the difference in the rest of the UK where the gap is just 17%.

Despite the Government's pay freeze for civil servants, wages are still rising.

The shock figures were revealed in the The Northern Ireland Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) released by the Department of Trade and Enterprise.

The report also revealed:

* For full-time female employees the average public sector wage is 78.4% higher than the private sector.

* A typical full-time employee in Northern Ireland saw their annual earnings fall by 0.2% this year, while in the UK as a whole wages rose by 2.1%.

* A typical full-time worker in Northern Ireland earned £23,900, compared to £27,000 in the UK overall.

The UK-wide survey of employers was based on a 1% sample of employee jobs. The widening of the public/private pay gap will increase pressure on the Executive to take measures to tackle the disparity.

Politicians here have long banged the drum for a private-sector-led economy.

Alliance Party MLA Judith Cochrane said Stormont needs to take urgent action: "Whilst I appreciate that this is not a straightforward issue to resolve and that it is complicated by things like the age profile of staff in Northern Ireland, it is essential that the Stormont Executive examine what options are available to them to reduce this gap.

"We need to re-assess some of the entry-level pay levels in Civil Service."

But she also said the private sector needs to play its part.

"However, there is also a requirement for local businesses to recognise they have to up their pay levels to compete. They are not just in competition with local public sector, but also with other locations, for best talent."

Economist David McNamara agreed that the private sector needs to do more in Northern Ireland: "While the level of public sector pay in Northern Ireland is similar to that in the UK, it is important to note that the percentage gap between the public and private sectors is that much greater than the UK because workers in the private sector here are generally paid less than those in the UK," he said.

"The problem is not that public sector in Northern Ireland is racing ahead of the UK in terms of pay. It's simply that private sector wages in the UK are that much higher.

"The real issue here is the relative low wages being paid in the private sector in Northern Ireland."

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has gone to great lengths to explain the disparity with a three-page document accompanying this year's statistics release giving reasons why such a gap exists. It cites a larger proportion of lower paid private sector jobs.

"Some of the difference between the respective public and private sectors' earnings figures in NI and the UK are likely due to reflect differences in the composition of the respective workforces," it said.

"Many of the lowest paid occupations, such as bar and restaurant staff, hairdressers, elementary sales occupations and cashiers, exist primarily in the private sector, while there are a larger proportion of graduate-level and professional occupations in the public sector."

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