International pay comparisons? You might be surprised at the results

Critics of public servants, including some in the houses of the Oireachtas, sometimes call for Irish public service pay to be “benchmarked” against international norms. You can expect to hear more of this as talks on an extension of the Croke Park agreement intensify.

The obvious implication is that we pay ourselves more than our counterparts across the continent. But is it true?

It’s notoriously hard to make these kinds of comparisons because national pay structures differ and similar job titles don’t necessarily describe the same roles or responsibilities of particular jobs.

There are also lots of different ways of comparing pay costs, which can result in very different outcomes even when you appear to be talking about the same thing. For instance, as a percentage of gross domestic product (one way of measuring economic output) the Irish public service pay bill is roughly in line with EU and OECD averages – even before you deduct the so-called ‘pension levy.’ But if you compare it to gross national product (a different way of measuring economic output) the Irish public service pay bill is above average.

Now a new study, commissioned by IMPACT, has compared the pay of certain public service grades in Ireland and Germany. The results will come as a surprise to some of our detractors.

The report, by Ciarán Lyng, a Trinity College graduate in German and law, finds that grades like clerical officers and primary school teachers actually earn less at all stages of their career than their German counterparts.

This is before you factor in and Irish cost of living that’s 17% higher than in Germany. Or the fact that German public servants are looking forward to pay increases of 6.3% over the next two years. Or the so-called ‘pension levy.’

Lyng’s paper acknowledges that German public servants have a longer working week than their Irish colleagues. But he also points out that German workers generally get more annual leave and public holidays.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the research is the sense of just how difficult it is to make international comparisons. If you simply look at the pay scales (shock, horror, the Germans system is based on increments too!) you could easily reach a very different conclusion than would a German speaker like Lyng, who also has some understanding of how the German public service is structured.

Is it too much to expect public service critics to take this complexity on board? Probably. Sadly.