Gina Davidson: Tough public sector jobs deserve reward

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LIKE a vast number of people in this city, and beyond, I am very excited about the arrival of two pandas at Edinburgh Zoo.

But while I understand their attraction and will be queuing up to have a good gawp while they do little except chew on bamboo, I find it bizarre that more people are getting worked up about going to see two cute animals than about what’s causing millions of public sector workers to strike.

Of course it could just be pure escapism – never mind that the economy is in meltdown, let’s go see some furry friends from the East. Yes, not only is China propping up the ailing economies of the west, it’s also diverting us from the realities of life.

However, to some, pandas are perhaps a good metaphor for yesterday’s mass strike. They cost a lot to support, do little and are rather apathetic when it comes to keeping the species going. In evolutionary terms they are the equivalent of public sector workers... well until those workers finally stood up to be counted.

There has been much debate about the rights and wrongs of yesterday’s industrial action. The constant refrain is that public sector workers need to join the “real world”, and give up their pension rights, as if they’ve been living and working in some kind of Utopia.

Those of us who work in pleasant air-conditioned offices of a day, sitting at desks where the only angst is whether to go outdoors to buy a coffee or make do with the vending machine need to think a bit harder about what we expect from those who provide the services upon which we all rely.

I have two close friends who are nurses. One works in intensive care, the other in accident and emergency. The tales they tell of their day-to-day jobs would shock you. Not just because of the terrible tragedies they deal with, the madness of the drunks they have to care for (sometimes relieving them of knives before they can even do that) but because of the little resources they have available to try to keep people alive. I find it hard to imagine they won’t deserve their pensions when they retire.

I have friends who are teachers. And yes, they do get long summer holidays, but as far as I can see, they work damned hard for their money. There are, no doubt, teachers who cut corners, who skip the hard stuff, but that doesn’t mean all should be tarred with the same brush – and therefore all deserve to lose their pension rights.

The same goes for firefighters, social workers, social care staff, home helps, janitors. These people don’t earn huge amounts of money. Some of them do jobs most of us would run a mile from. My sister-in-law is a nurse who has dedicated her life to working with children who have suffered sexual abuse. Fancy that job? Think she doesn’t deserve to retire on a reasonable pension?

Why should she or any of them suffer financially when they retire because of the state of the economy, which has been ruined by, to use Vince Cable’s words “spivs” in the City of London?

The argument that it’s already happened to those of us who work in the private sector is a hollow one. It shouldn’t have happened to us either, but we allowed it to because we no longer live in a country where unions are strong enough to protect workers properly and where successive governments have allowed businesses to raid pension pots without legislating against it.

The private sector should look at the public sector’s rights and benefits and aspire to that – not try to drag everyone else down to the lowest common denominator.

But this shouldn’t even be an argument about public versus private. It should be a discussion about whether we as a country value those people who work for us. About whether we value their jobs and contribution to society just now and in the future.

Of course, the public sector has become bloated. There are too many jobs which seem to have been created just to create jobs. These are issues for local authorities and central government to deal with when it comes to cutting back on staffing levels. But that’s separate to the fact that people should be able to get the pension they’ve signed up to and paid into for years.

But, I hear you cry, we just can’t afford these “gold-plated” pensions, of which the average is, apparently, around £5000 a year. Well if we can afford to go to war, we can afford to pay our people. If we can afford to pay politicians’ pensions, we can afford to pay those who really do work for us.

We need good public services. We need to give people who work in some of the toughest jobs proper remuneration, be it salary or pension. Otherwise public sector workers will go the way of the pandas.