Voluntary exit must be just that
When the dust settled following the conclusion of the all-party talks leading to the publication of the Stormont House proposals, when we all had a chance to drill down into the detail, it became clear there were some areas which needed significant work.
At the time, my party said that we would work to improve the elements that were weak, while building on the strengths. One area that needed work was the voluntary exit scheme, which could see a depletion of up to 20,000 public sector jobs.
Our primary concern remains that by setting such a significant target the Executive may be setting a path from a voluntary to a coercive and eventually a mandatory package.
That is unacceptable to us and my colleague Mark H Durkan has made that clear to the other Executive parties.
Every single exit should be absolutely voluntary.
When we have a final figure for civil servants taking part in the scheme - and at the moment it stands at more than 7,000 - it's important that the savings generated are put to use raising standards and conditions for workers across the public sector.
That means, for example, we should commit to paying all public sector workers a living wage, lifting people out of poverty and acting as a standard-bearer for employers across the north.
The SDLP made Belfast City Council the first living wage council in Ireland; it's time that we use savings generated by public servants to benefit our public sector and follow in the footsteps of local government by establishing a living wage economy.
But we shouldn't stop there; there are a range of ongoing pay disputes within the public sector. We need to reflect on the forbearance that public service workers have shown over years of recession and downturn, tolerating real-term cuts in pay and poor conditions.
The voluntary exit scheme has been billed as an opportunity to transform the public sector in the north; that must mean more than a simple reduction in numbers.
We are presented with a transformative opportunity to re-engineer public services; it should be on the basis of moving beyond cuts and into a confident, fair-wage economy.
- Colum Eastwood is SDLP MLA for Foyle